Filed Under:Claims, Litigation

The Long, Lethal Shadow of Asbestos

BOSTON, May 11 (Reuters) - As anyone in the United States with a TV or Internet connection probably knows, lawyers want you if you've been exposed to asbestos, and they're paying to get you.

At one point earlier this year, 15 of the 100 most expensive keyword search phrases for click-through ads on Google contained the word "mesothelioma," the deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure. The single most expensive phrase, online marketing firm SpyFu reported, was "Florida mesothelioma lawyers," at $177.74 per click.

About a decade ago, "unimpaired" plaintiffs -- people who had some asbestos exposure but weren't sick and had no evidence they were getting sick -- accounted for "literally hundreds of thousands of claims," says Mike Angelides, managing partner of the Simmons Law Firm, which by its own estimate accounts for 20 percent of all asbestos-related lawsuits filed in the U.S. every year.

Matt Bergman, a Seattle attorney who specializes in asbestos litigation, says the number of lawsuits probably peaked in 2005, when he estimates 16,000 cases were filed, most from people without any illness.

Within a few years, mounting litigation, as well as scientific evidence linking asbestos to disease, prompted new government and industry regulations on safe handling and use of the mineral. Since 1973, according to the USGS, U.S. consumption has fallen 99.9 percent, though global use is down only around 50 percent.

In the ensuing decades, asbestos litigation overwhelmed one company after another. By government estimates, about 100 companies have been forced into bankruptcy proceedings because of asbestos liabilities -- including construction-materials and industrial heavyweights such as Johns Manville (now a part of Berkshire HathawayInc ), USG Corp and Owens Corning.

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