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5/18/2020 By Megan Shockley

It was around the same time that KCIC was wrapping up and publishing our 2019 Asbestos Litigation Year in Review report earlier this year that much of the country enacted social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. These measures included many court closures as non-essential cases were postponed.  As much remains shut down across the country, we wanted to see if the court closures have had any effects on asbestos filings in Q1 2020.

For this analysis, we compared Q1 2020 complaints received through May 1, 2020, with Q1 2019 complaints received through May 1, 2019, and with Q1 2018 complaints received through May 1, 2018. Since the average lag between when a complaint is filed in the court and when we receive it for processing is about one month, we decided to wait until May to complete this analysis to give as much time for March filings to come in as possible. We grouped the counts of filings by week of file date in each year. We then plotted the weeks against the cumulative number of filings for the first quarter, where the slope indicates the number of new filings between the weeks, as shown in the chart below.

This year’s trend line, designated in orange, started off very similar to the prior two years - especially 2018 – and held consistent until the end of January. However, while 2018 and 2019 filings continue to track closely together throughout the quarter, 2020 filings began to diverge from this trend in mid-February and fell significantly below the level of previous years as we continued into late February and early March. This coincides exactly with the period when COVID-19 related shutdowns began most widely taking effect. In fact, filings for weeks 10 and 11 (the first two weeks of March) were down 38% and 32% respectively compared to the same time last year. Then, in weeks 12 and 13, the dramatic decrease in filings lessened. First quarter 2020 filings (received as of May 1, 2020) were down 13% compared to first quarter 2019 filings received as of May 1, 2019. 

Mesothelioma and lung cancer filings decreased 12% and 2% respectively compared to the same time last year, and non-malignant filings were down 57%. Even with this sharp decrease in filings, mesothelioma claims made up 53% of first quarter 2020 filings versus 52% of first quarter 2019 filings which shows a small increase in concentration toward these claims. Lung cancer saw an even greater increase in concentration of overall filings. In Q1 2020, lung cancer filings made up 37% of all filings compared to 33% of 2019 Q1 filings. So overall, mesothelioma and lung cancer claims made up 90% of all filings received in 2020 Q1.

Out of the top jurisdictions for asbestos litigation, several also have been the top cities and counties for confirmed COVID-19 cases. Some, like Los Angeles, CA (-43%), Wayne, MI (-61%), and New Orleans, LA (-50%) experienced drastic decreases in Q1 filings in 2020 compared to this time last year. When looking at filings by week in these locations, Los Angeles and Wayne both experienced a significant drop in filings during February and continuing into March. Filings in New Orleans, however, have been consistently lower than Q1 2019 throughout each week of the quarter.

Other COVID-19 hotspots, like New York, NY (+6%), Middlesex, NJ (+19%), and Philadelphia, PA (+26%) saw increases in first quarter filings in 2020 compared to first quarter 2019. Interestingly, in New York, 2020 filings began lower than 2019 filings, but then increased above 2019 filings around week 7, right when national filings first started to fall below last year. Middlesex, NJ, experienced the same increase in 2020 filings during week 7, which continued throughout the rest of the quarter, while Philadelphia filings rose above 2019 filing levels in week 5 of 2020. It is clear first quarter filing counts in these locations were not been affected by the pandemic.

Madison County, IL, where the vast majority of asbestos claims are filed, saw a 9% decrease in first quarter 2020 filing numbers compared to the same time last year. While overall filings by week in Madison County look similar to the national filings, Q1 2020 filing trends in this jurisdiction did vary by plaintiff firm. 

Simmons Hanly Conroy filed the most lawsuits in Madison County in Q1 2020.  While total filings in this jurisdiction were 9% lower than at this time last year, this firm’s Q1 2020 filings were up 4% compared to Q1 2019. While the increase did lessen during weeks 9 through 11, the overall increase remained.

In contrast, The Gori Firm’s filings for Q1 2020 decreased 22% compared to last year. Weeks 9 through 11 for 2020 saw a drastic 67% decrease in filings compared to the same time period in 2019. However, this firm also saw a similar decrease in weeks 2 through 5 compared to filings in those same weeks of 2019.

Maune Raichle Hartley French & Mudd filed 36% fewer cases in Madison County during Q1 2020 than in Q1 2019. For this firm, filings started off averaging close to 2019, then in week 7 began to diverge. This decrease is more consistent with the national trend we have seen in terms of timing.

Now, as states begin to reopen, it will be interesting to see if asbestos litigation filings return to business as usual, or if there will be a surge in filings for cases potentially held during the pandemic. We will continue to monitor and report on the filing trends for 2020 as we navigate these unprecedented circumstances together.