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Workers win test case over asbestos cashVerdict may cost insurance firms millions

TENS of thousands of workmen who were exposed to deadly asbestos have had their right to compensation upheld by the High Court in a decision that will cost insurance companies millions of pounds.

Dave Mark

16 February 2005 - In what was hailed as a great moral victory, Mr Justice Holland declared that a group of workers exposed to asbestos by their employers should still be entitled to compensation for the condition "pleural plaques" – although at a severely reduced rate to that they had enjoyed in the past.

A group of insurance companies, which included Norwich Union and British Shipbuilders, challenged the payment of compensation to people who suffer pleural plaques. They had claimed they should not have to pay compensation to people with the condition. They said it has no symptoms and is not fatal. If the decision in the test case had gone against the workers, it could have ended payouts totalling some £25m a year.

Hull man David Mears, 61, is among the group who led the battle to continue the payments to thousands of people who have the condition – internal scars in the lining of the lungs caused by asbestos exposure. Tens of thousands more are expected to make claims in future years.
Lawyer Simon Allen, of Russell Jones and Walker, represented many of those involved. He said that tens of thousands of people who had pleural plaques would lose out financially following yesterday's judgment, but that it was a victory nonetheless.

He said: "Pleural plaques prove unprotected exposure to asbestos and highlight a risk, of between five and 10 per cent, of developing a serious asbestos-related illness such as asbestosis or the fatal condition mesothelioma.

"For the last 20 years people have been able to claim compensation for the anxiety their condition causes. Before this judgment a one-off, final compensation payment of up to £15,000 could be claimed, but today this is slashed to a maximum of £7,000.

"The maximum interim payment, allowing people to return for further compensation should their lung damage develop into something more sinister, has also been cut from up to £6,000 to a maximum of £4,000.
"The silent epidemic of asbestos-related disease claims around 3,500 lives in Britain each year and this figure will rise dramatically as those exposed to asbestos in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s begin to suffer.
"If someone now accepts a final settlement of £7,000 and then develops mesothelioma they will not be able to afford the medical care they will need in the months ahead."

The insurance companies had tried to persuade the court they should not have to pay compensation to people with the condition. But those diagnosed with pleural plaques are at a far greater risk of contracting one of the many terminal illnesses associated with asbestos, such as mesothelioma, a terminal cancer of the lining of the lungs. They say the plaques cause acute anxiety, and feel they are living with a "timebomb".

Mr Mears, represented by Manchester solicitors John Pickering and Partners, was diagnosed with asbestos-related pleural plaques and claims compensation from his former employer RG Carter Ltd. He was exposed to asbestos dust when working as a joiner in the 1970s on the construction of council housing in Hull.

He was cutting asbestos sheeting with a circular bench saw and drilling and fitting the sheeting to baths, stairs, and dustbin areas. His employers never warned him about the dangers nor did they provide him with a suitable mask. They have admitted they were negligent.
Mr Mears said: "I feel very annoyed that my employers are not honouring their responsibilities. The problem for me is the uncertainty, whether the pleural plaques are going to develop into anything or not. I just don't know when or if it will be triggered into something else. I would much prefer to have the plaques removed and they could keep the money. But that's impossible."

Geraldine Coombs, of John Pickering and Partners, told said: "It's a victory, no doubt. It preserves a right to compensation. This is not a case of opening the floodgates, it just ensures that people who have acquired the condition can be compensated for what may occur."
16 February 2005


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