BY MOST CALCULATIONS, some 200,000 people will die prematurely over the next two decades because their jobs have exposed them to asbestos. It is typically 15 to 40 years from the time a person is exposed until the symptoms of disease begin to appear. Many of the current suits are being filed by people who were shipyard workers during World War II. It means that the volume of asbestos litigation is likely to expand greatly over the next generation, regardless of any precautions taken now.

It has been evident for some time that the conventional sort of product liability litigation is extremely inefficient in the asbestos cases. The Rand Corporation now has begun publishing research showing just how badly things are going. Rand's Institute for Civil Justice surveyed the 3,800 asbestos claims that had been settled before last Aug. 26, when the Manville Corp. interrupted the process by filing for bankruptcy. If you had the impression that most of the money was going to lawyers, and shockingly little to the people suffering from asbestiosis and cancer, you're right.

The average claim has cost the defendants and their insurance companies about $95,000. Of that, they spent $35,000 on their own legal defense and they paid $60,000 in compensation. But out of that compensation, the victims paid an average of $25,000 in their own lawyers' fees.

To put it the other way, out of that $95,000 the lawyers for both plaintiff and defendant got $60,000. The plaintiff, when all the legal bills were paid, ended up with $35,000--slightly more than one-third of the total amount of money devoted to the case.

The litigation, including both the cases already settled and those still open, has cost about $1 billion. Lawyers' fees, including the costs of defendants' suits against each other, and administrative expenses have absorbed more than three-fourths of that $1 billion. Since people are generally barred by the workmen's compensation laws from suing former employers, they sue the manufacturers of asbestos products, suppliers, middlemen, contractors and so forth. Each plaintiff sues, on the average, 20 defendants, a figure that helps explain the inordinate legal costs.

It's nice for the lawyers. But does the result even remotely approximate anybody's idea of justice? Unhappily, the asbestos cases may be only the first of a wave of claims arising from other industrial hazards and their relationships to diseases with long latencies. It's time for Congress to take these cases out of the courts and put them into special tribunals that can arrive at fair settlements that chiefly benefit not the advocates but the people who are the victims of asbestos.