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Asbestos rulings provide glimmer of hope for cancer sufferers

Employers can no longer hide behind a statistic that claimed to show a ‘safe’ level of exposure, which could pave the way for a wave of compensation claims, writes Peter Williams for The Times Brief.

There is rarely good news in cases involving mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos. It is a vicious disease, usually fatal, that can take 30 years to develop and strikes down people who have worked hard their whole lives, often without warning.

Sadly, the number of people dying from asbestos poisoning has increased by nearly a third over the past ten years, but is expected to peak this year before tailing off as those exposed in their 20s and 30s reach their 60s and 70s. They are mostly construction workers and shipbuilders, but more recently teachers and hospital workers have been affected — asbestos is thought to be in virtually all schools built between 1950 and 2000.

But the landmark Court of Appeal decision last week for Veronica Bussey at least offers hope of more certainty that sufferers and their families will receive compensation from employers for negligently exposing workers without protection or warning.

It effectively overrules a piece of data produced in the 1970s by the HM Factory Inspectorate, a precursor to the Health and Safety Executive, that has wrongly been used by defendants and the courts to suggest a “safe” level of asbestos that people could work in.

Used as a test it absolved employers of responsibility and denied claimants the compensation they deserved. Last week’s ruling should pave the way for compensation for thousands of sufferers.

Sadly, many people die before their cases are concluded, but at least dependents are now more likely to receive compensation to provide some financial security, not least because the UK has one of the worst records of mesothelioma deaths in the world, having only banned the use of most forms of asbestos in 1985. In comparison, Sweden banned its use for insulation in 1972.

Immunotherapy for mesothelioma patients has recently shown tentative signs of success. It is expensive treatment, not yet available on the NHS, meaning that sufferers take the risk of paying for it themselves. But when it works it can dramatically improve a patient’s life expectancy.

In another significant judgment, last month Pamela Stubberfield, who developed mesothelioma after coming into contact with asbestos as a lab technician in the 1960s, was awarded money for indefinite private treatment, to be paid by her former employer. The total value of the claim is estimated at about £550,000 and hopefully provides a template for future claims.

These are small steps, but at least the law can be seen to offer a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark environment.

Peter Williams is head of asbestos claims at the City of London law firm Fieldfisher, which represented Veronica Bussey

This article was first posted in The Times Brief. The original post can be viewed here.