Another Insurer, MetLife, Reports Rising Asbestos Claims

By Ben Berkowitz | August 5, 2011

Asbestos-related claims against MetLife Inc. rose 11 percent in the first half of the year, the company said Friday, mirroring recent comments by other large insurers who have experienced more claims than they expected.

MetLife, the largest U.S. life insurer, received 2,306 asbestos-related claims in the first half, up from 2,076 in the same period of 2010, the company said in a quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It did not offer details on the potential size of those claims or how that compares to claims from past years. MetLife’s new asbestos claims dropped at a steady pace from 2003 through 2010, falling 40 percent over the period.

MetLife has one of the longest and most complicated histories when it comes to asbestos and the insurance industry. Lawsuits have alleged that MetLife employees knew of the insulating material’s harmful health effects as early as the 1920s, claims the company has rejected.

This year, both American International Group Inc. and Hartford Financial Services have made substantial additions to their asbestos reserves, given an increase in claims and claim severity.

The industry argues that many of the new claims stem from plaintiffs’ lawyers becoming more effective at suing people who are only peripherally connected to asbestos victims. Late-night cable television is flooded with ads from asbestos lawyers, and “mesothelioma” is among the most valuable of advertising keywords on Google.

Yet even as claims rise, doctors say the actual incidence of asbestos-linked diseases like the lung cancer mesothelioma is on the decline. Doctors are being more aggressive in treating the cases that do pop up, though, which also contributes to elevated costs for insurers.

Ratings agency A.M. Best has said it expects the industry to ultimately face $75 billion in exposure to asbestos claims, and it has argued that some companies are still not fully reserved for claims they may experience.

(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; editing by John Wallace)

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