Asbestos: Over 500,000 Claimants and $21 Billion and Counting

August 20, 2001

The RAND Institute for Civil Justice (ICJ) began analyzing asbestos litigation in the early 1980s in a study that was the first to examine the costs and compensation paid for asbestos personal injury claims. Other reports followed, tracking what is now the longest-running mass tort litigation in U.S. history.

The documented briefing, “Asbestos Litigation in the U.S.: A New Look at an Old Issue,” is the first phase of the ICJ’s latest study. It synthesizes the data and state of play concerning the central aspects of the issue: How many claims have been filed, how much compensation has been paid and how high might these fast-growing numbers go? How well is the litigation serving the injured workers on whose behalf the claims are filed? What is the balance between the compensation paid out and the costs to deliver it? What economic costs does the litigation impose on the country and who bears them? Are there strategies for resolving asbestos suits that would be more efficient and more equitable?

The briefing was prepared for meetings with the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. It offers preliminary answers to these questions, based largely on aggregate data available in published sources and on interviews with participants in the litigation, including plaintiff and defense attorneys, court-appointed neutrals, and insurance-company claims managers.

This first phase of the study concludes with a set of policy implications suggested by the preliminary findings. The researchers note that, although more than 500,000 claims have been filed, this may be less than half of those that ultimately come forward. All of the major asbestos defendants are likely to be in bankruptcy within 24 months, they warn. But before this happens, there is a window of opportunity for reviewing and rethinking national asbestos strategy.

The next two phases of the study, scheduled to be completed by the Spring of 2002, will provide a more detailed analysis of these and other questions based on RAND’s own data collection efforts, a review of the epidemiological literature, an analysis of the consequences of resolving asbestos litigation through bankruptcy proceedings, and some consideration of the likely magnitude and character of future litigation. The research team may also offer recommendations.

The full text of the briefing is available on RAND’s website

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