For comparison purposes, all numbers in this blog post are filings as of 10/31 in the given year.
We have researched and reported on asbestos filing trends quite a bit this year. In general, the main takeaway has been that filings in 2020 are down compared to prior years. Nationally, during the first four months of this year, asbestos filings were down 20% compared to January through April 2019. We attribute the decrease mostly to COVID-19-related disruptions and shutdowns. Filings picked up as courthouses reopened and businesses adjusted, but they are still down 12% compared to the same time last year (January through October).
The 12% decrease does not mean that each jurisdiction is experiencing 12% fewer filings this year, but it does set a bar for comparing the filing activity in each state. When we dig into specific jurisdictions, the filing trends can be quite different than the national data. Some jurisdictions have seen significant increases in filings, while others experienced a substantial drop in filings - some more than 5 times lower than the overall national decrease. Two jurisdictions on opposite ends of these extremes are Maryland and South Carolina.
For the many years we have been tracking asbestos filings, the Baltimore City Circuit Court—home to virtually all asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits filed in Maryland—has been a top filing jurisdiction. In 2016 and 2017, Baltimore City was #2 in the nation in asbestos filings. More recently, however, filings in Baltimore City have been declining. The downward trend started in 2018, when Baltimore City slid to #3 in the nation in asbestos filings. The trend gained momentum in 2019 when Baltimore City dropped to #6. So far in 2020, asbestos filings in Baltimore City are down more than 50% compared to the same ten-month period last year. Baltimore City may end the year ranked #10 in filings nationally—still a very significant jurisdiction for asbestos litigation but far less active than it has been historically.
The decline in filings in Baltimore City was driven mainly by a sharp decrease in lawsuits filed by The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos (Angelos) on behalf of claimants alleging non-malignant asbestos-related conditions. The Angelos firm has been the dominant asbestos firm in Baltimore City for decades. The change in filing patterns has come at the time when the judges and the legislature in Baltimore City would not allow mass, multi-plaintiff trials as an attempt to clear the docket of thousands of pending asbestos lawsuits in the City. Instead, the court has focused on clearing these lawsuits by reviewing a group of cases each month to see which cases are ready for trial.
This practice by the judges in Baltimore City does seem to be shrinking the docket in Baltimore City as the Angelos firm and The Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl, another firm filing asbestos lawsuits in Baltimore City, have voluntarily dismissed thousands of aging cases not ready to stand trial. For example, from January through October 2020, the Angelos firm has dismissed over 3,100 cases. In recent years, as asbestos litigation nationally has shifted away from non-malignant cases to more mesothelioma and lung cancer lawsuits, Baltimore City has become an outlier with the vast majority of cases filed remaining non-malignant allegations. As a result of these changes and efforts to clear out the backlog of aged non-malignant cases, the Baltimore City asbestos docket is slowly being recalibrated to align more with other major jurisdictions with respect to the mix of diseases represented.
Asbestos filings in South Carolina are moving in the opposite direction. Until recently, the state was not a very active asbestos jurisdiction. For example, 2017 and 2018 saw consistent filings at 8 each year. In 2019, however, there were 14 filings, and so far in 2020 there have been 19 filings. On a percentage basis, this is one of the largest increases in the nation, as filings have more than doubled in 2 years. It is important to note that this data only captures filings against traditional asbestos defendants and does not include talc-based cases that are also being filed in Richland County, which are also on the rise.
Texas-based law firm Dean Omar Branham & Shirley LLP (Dean Omar) and the firm’s South Carolina local counsel, Kassel McVey Attorneys at Law, filed 100% of the asbestos filings in Richland County in 2019 and all but one of the filings so far in 2020. The vast majority of traditional asbestos plaintiffs in Richland County are alleging mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos litigation in Maryland and South Carolina is mainly driven by filings in one jurisdiction and by one law firm, however the similarities between the two jurisdictions end there. The differences are significant—Baltimore City filings have been driven mainly by lower value non-malignant claims and have substantially decreased, while South Carolina filings are mainly comprised of high value mesothelioma claims and have substantially increased over the past couple of years. It does seem that as one of the most popular venues for asbestos litigation is winding down in Maryland, another new hot spot is quickly ramping up in South Carolina.
 UPDATED NOTICES OF COMPLETE RESOLUTION AND DISMISSAL NOTICES OF COMPLETE RESOLUTION AND TRANSFER TO BANKRUPTCY ONLY DOCKET AND MOTIONS TO WITHDRAW APPEARANCE OF COUNSEL FILED BY THE LAW OFFICES OF PETER G. ANGELOS, P.C., filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court on 12/1/2020.
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