Asbestos-based litigation continued its downward cycle in 2020, likely fueled by the pandemic, according to a consulting firm’s annual report.
KCIC’s “Asbestos Litigation: 2020 Year in Review,” which summarizes all data compiled for last year, revealed that asbestos-focused lawsuits fell roughly 11 percent in 2020, down to 3,685.
While 2019 was largely a repeat of 2018 — with 4,138 lawsuits filed in 2018 and just one fewer in 2019 — 2020’s precipitous drop echoes a downward trend evident between 2016 and 2018, where the average number of cases fell by 8 percent each year, the data showed.
The company’s report covers data gathered through Jan. 31, 2021, owing to a roughly month-long gap between when a suit is filed and when the company processes it. KCIC acknowledges that the report is not definitive — due to the lack of a national repository of asbestos-based court filings and because some 2020 filings may continue to trickle in — but estimates that this report covers at least 90 percent of all asbestos suits filed nationwide.
Lung Cancer Stands Out
Breaking down the asbestos filings by the associated disease reveals that every category declined save one: lung cancer. An estimated 1,484 filings in 2020 blamed lung cancer on asbestos exposure, an 8.7 percent increase over 2019’s 1,365 filings. This continued a two-year trend in increased lung cancer filings, which KCIC attributed to a greater focus on asbestos-derived lung cancer claims at law firms, noting that four of the top 10 firms filing lung cancer cases “more than doubled their 2019 lung cancer filing counts.”
Despite this, mesothelioma lawsuits still dominated the overall listings, even with a 14.3 percent nosedive in filings. Malignant mesothelioma cases accounted for 1,827 filings in 2020, the report noted. Overall, they made up nearly half of all asbestos-related filings in 2020.
Non-malignant variants accounted for a scant 172 filings, a 53 percent drop from 2019; undisclosed types logged 114 filings, a 34.9 percent drop; and the catch-all category “Other Cancer” constituted 88 filings for a 10.2 percent drop over 2019.
KCIC says that the overall decrease in asbestos-related filings could be “partially attributable” to COVID-19, whose spread triggered mass lockdowns that shuttered court systems multiple times throughout 2020.
In doing a year-over-year comparison of each month between 2018 and 2020, the company found that March 2020 filings — when the coronavirus lockdown started in many states — dropped 18 percent over 2019’s results. April saw an even sharper decline: 27 percent compared to the same time period in 2019.
However, as the year progressed and restrictions loosened, asbestos filings started to pick up again, with September and October logging higher numbers than during the same months of 2019.
The report also logged basic information about the plaintiffs and found that traditional gender gaps in asbestos claims remain, with men making up 87.1 percent of all claims. A higher proportion of women filed mesothelioma suits in 2020 — 18.4 percent versus 12.1 for all types of claims — but a higher proportion of men made lung cancer claims: 93.2 percent.
The report also logged plaintiffs’ ages, though it noted that only 30 percent of filings in 2020 actually included the plaintiff’s date of birth. According to their findings, the average age for an asbestos-based plaintiff was 75, a slight increase over the previous three years, all of which were pegged at 74.
When it comes to defendants, the report noted that future results are likely to be missing a few key names. Prominent defendants in asbestos cases that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020 and exited the tort system include Aldrich Pump, DBMP, Murray Boiler and Paddock. The report noted that Aldrich Pump and Murray Boiler appeared in 66 percent of all national asbestos filings before they declared bankruptcy, while DBMP was named in 63 percent.