Court sets costly asbestos formula

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NEW YORK - American companies facing asbestos injury claims, and their insurers, can expect to pay average combined damages of between dollars 9.2m and dollars 12.95m ( pounds 4.9m and pounds 6.9m) to each successful plaintiff if a jury decision yesterday in Baltimore is any guide, writes Larry Black.

The jury, which decided last month to award three sample claims a total of dollars 11.2m in compensatory damages, set the formula for punitive damages against three accused companies. In addition to the average compensation of dollars 3.7m, workers in the state of Maryland who are entitled to damages will also receive a punitive award equal to between 1.5 and 2.5 times that amount.

America's vast number of asbestos injury suits potentially represents the insurance industry's greatest liability. Their outcome has hung over the financial outlook of the insurance market, and notably Lloyd's, for a decade.

More than 8,500 asbestos cases in Maryland will be tried in coming months under the guidelines set by the jury, pending appeal by the companies, GAF, Keene and Pittsburgh Corning. While the state's formula - the result of a closely watched five-month trial - does not automatically apply to the more than 86,000 asbestos injury claims filed elsewhere in the US, the decision is likely to establish a precedent for courts nationwide.

Six sample claims were tried by the court, but the three other plaintiffs, whose cases were selected by lawyers for accused companies, were found not eligible for damages awards. The companies plan to appeal against yesterday's decisions on a variety of grounds, including the right of the court to consolidate cases and hold 'mini- trials' guided by the resulting formula.