BILLINGS, Mont. — A Montana judge says a Nebraska-based insurance company is liable for a $43 million settlement between the state and people sickened by exposure to asbestos from a Libby vermiculite mine.

National Indemnity Co. paid $16 million toward the 2009 settlement but later sued to recover the money.

State District Judge Holly Brown said in ruling last week that the insurance company breached its duty to defend the state against damage claims by asbestos victims.

Brown said because of that breach the company could not deny coverage for the settlement.

Montana Department of Administration spokeswoman Amber Conger said Tuesday that the state was pleased with the judge’s ruling, but declined further comment because the case is ongoing.

National Indemnity did not immediately respond to a request for comment.