Twenty major asbestos producers have agreed on a national plan to compensate victims of the cancer-causing fiber, patterned on deals struck last year in Virginia.

The deal, announced last weekend, would affect future claims against the companies and their insurers, but would not affect those who have already won claims from the companies.Under the newest plan, most settlements would range between $37,000 and $60,000 for mesothelioma, a painful and always fatal cancer of the membranes around the lungs; between $19,000 and $30,000 for lung cancer; and between $5,800 and $7,500 for asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that makes it hard to breathe.

The deal would only affect people who filed claims against the 20 companies after Nov. 1, said Robert R. Hatten, a Newport News lawyer who specializes in representing asbestos victims.

Asbestos, a fireproof fiber that until the 1970s was widely used in ship construction, causes chest cancers and lung disease.

The 20 companies' agreement, being made under the auspices of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, would set up a relatively automatic system for paying compensation to asbestos victims.

Payment would be automatic, once victims showed they were suffering from an asbestos-caused disease - through a set of standardized medical tests - and that they had been exposed to asbestos products made by one of the 20 firms.

The approach is the same as that pioneered in a series of Virginia settlements last year.

As in the Virginia settlements, the idea is to make sure there's enough money in the future to compensate potential victims who aren't yet suffering

from asbestos-caused disease. That's been a critical problem in the $30 billion asbestos liability crisis because it can take decades for asbestos diseases to develop, Mr. Hatten said.

People who filed claims before Nov. 1 are covered by the Virginia settlements.

The Philadelphia deal does not affect claims against asbestos producers other than the 20 firms, he said. And asbestos victims who would rather contest their claim before a jury have the right to opt out of the deal, he said.

At the same time, Mr. Hatten said a complex federal appeals court ruling rejecting a proposed settlement by Keene Corp. could cloud prospects for a final settlement of claims against the biggest producer of all, Manville Corp.

In that case, the appeals court in New York questioned whether a lower court judge could push through a class action settlement for Keene.

If the appeals court similarly rejects the Manville deal, that could affect the claims of those who have won judgments against Manville but whose payments have been held up by years of legal wrangles spawned by Manville's 1982 bankruptcy.

The companies involved in the agreement are Amchem Products Inc., A Green Industries Inc., Armstrong World Industries Inc., CertainTeed Corp., C.E. Thurston and Sons Inc., Dana Corp., Ferodo America Inc., Flexitallic Inc., GAF Corp.,I.U. North America Inc., Maremont Corp., Asbestos Claims Management Corp. (formerly known as National Gypsum Co.), National Services Industries Inc., Nosroc Corp., Pfizer Inc., Quigley Co. Inc., Shook & Fletcher Insulation Co., T&N PLC, Union Carbide Chemicals and Plastics Co. Inc., and U.S. Gypsum Co.