Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect

If you think you have a legal claim for illness caused by asbestos exposure, here's what you need to know.

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If you've been exposed to asbestos and been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may ask, "If I file a lawsuit can I expect to recover significant money damages?" The answer is usually "yes." People who discover they are suffering from mesothelioma due to working with asbestos (or, if they are deceased, their spouse) have an excellent chance of achieving substantial money damages, either from the company that manufactured or installed the asbestos, or from an insurance company or asbestos victims' trust fund that has assumed liability for the company. And this is true even if the original manufacturer has long since sold out, closed down, or even gone bankrupt, thanks to the formation of asbestos victims' trust funds. (For more information on employees' rights when it comes to asbestos exposure on the job, see Nolo's article Asbestos in the Workplace.)

How Long Do I Have to Sue?

Mesothelioma tends to develop 10 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos. State laws called statutes of limitations usually give people one to five years (depending on the state) from the diagnosis or discovery of mesothelioma to file a lawsuit. But it's important to act promptly, because in a few states, including California, Tennessee, and Louisiana, the statue of limitations is only one year from diagnosis. (Check out Nolo's chart Statutes of Limitations in All 50 States.)

If a mesothelioma victim has already died, his or her spouse and other heirs typically have one to three years from the date of death to file a wrongful death action, which can also result in the recovery of substantial money damages.

Mesothelioma victims can't file or join in class actions lawsuits because each person's medical history and prognosis is different, so mesothelioma cases must be filed individually.

How Long Does an Asbestos or Mesothelioma Case Take?

Most asbestos cases are settled before they ever get to a jury (meaning the parties agree outside of court to the amount of money damages the mesothelioma victim will get). If you have gathered all the facts about your medical condition and employment history, and your lawyer runs an efficient office, and there is an easily identifiable payment source -- such as an insurance company or an asbestos victims' trust fund -- you may get your money in less than a year from the date your lawsuit is filed. But in other situations, where the amount of money damages depends on going to trial (or at least threatening to do so), it can take two years or more. Fortunately, the court rules in many states recognize that mesothelioma victims have a short life expectancy and as a result, fast track their lawsuits.

How Much Can I Recover?

The dollar amount you are likely to receive as compensation for developing mesothelioma is hard to estimate. Some cases result in settlements or jury awards in the millions, while similar ones settle for comparatively little. This is because over the years, many companies that manufactured or installed asbestos have closed down or gone bankrupt, which in turn has resulted in courts' requiring that large funds be set aside to compensate future victims. Some of these funds are still large enough to pay out all claims at full value, but others have been depleted to the point that far less is available, so settlement amounts must be rationed.

In addition to the size of the asbestos victims' compensation fund available for payment, each victim's particular mesothelioma illness and how it has affected their life is important to arriving at a cash settlement or jury verdict. The dollar amount of wages lost due to the illness, the cost of medical expenses, and, usually most important, the degree of the victim's pain and suffering are all key factors in putting a dollar value on a particular case.

A third factor in estimating how much money damages you'll recover is time. When cases are settled relatively quickly, the amount recovered tends to be significantly less than if your lawyer waits to present your case to a trial jury. But preparing and conducting a jury trial may take several years, whereas settlements can often be arranged in a year or less. For this reason, many seriously ill plaintiffs prefer a relatively quick settlement, and this is especially true when they learn that some lawyers charge substantially more when a case goes to trial.

All of this being said, many mesothelioma cases result in settlement or awards in the range of $1 million to $5 million or more, but when attorneys' fees, court costs, and medical expenses are subtracted, victims often end up with around two-thirds of these amounts.

Can I Get Disability Because of Mesothelioma?

The most common types of mesothelioma qualify for expedited disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. For more information, see this article on gettingĀ disability for mesothelioma.

How Do I Pay My Lawyer?

All mesothelioma cases are handled on a contingency fee arrangement. This means your lawyer charges you no fees up front, but instead receives a percentage of the eventual settlement or money damages you receive as the result of a court judgment, plus any expenses (for things like depositions, copying, and postage) that you agree to pay as part of a written fee agreement. A typical contingency fee is 25% to 40% of money damages you recover. The exact amount depends on several factors, including whether a victims' trust fund places a cap on contingency fees (some allow no more than 25%), whether you settle out of court or go to trial, how much the lawyer wants your case (if the attorney believes your case is certain to win a big settlement or court judgment, you are in a much better bargaining position than if you are likely to receive a lower amount), and how hard you bargain before signing a fee agreement.

How Do I Find a Mesothelioma Lawyer?

Nolo provides a personalized lawyer directory that includes lawyers who specialize in personal injury and mesothelioma cases. Information about each lawyer's experience, education, and fees, and (perhaps most importantly) the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law is available. By using Nolo's directory, you can narrow down candidates before calling them for a phone or face-to-face interview. For more details on locating and selecting a good asbestos and mesothelioma lawyer, read Nolo's article How to Hire a Mesothelioma or Asbestos Lawyer.

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