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Ignorance around mesothelioma suggests younger people aren't affected

Dushal Mehta
13/02/2020

Following successful judgment in the high court, the widow of a man in his 50s who died from mesothelioma said that there is a misconception that somehow the dangers of asbestos are over.

Sarah Witham, whose husband Neil died in January 2019 after suffering 'terrible pain every day', said that the ongoing dangers of asbestos are being swept under the carpet in the belief that the disease only affected people now in their 70s and 80s who had been working during the 1950s and 1960s.

Neil Witham was exposed to asbestos in the 1990s, working as a labourer for Steve Hill Ltd.

'People think this is a disease that is petering out because most of the exposure was during the 1950s,' Sarah said. 'But Neil worked around asbestos in the 1990s with no protection from his employer. Had he refused to do so, he would have lost his job, because there are so many people needing the work.

'When you have bills to pay, it's easy just to get on with things without realise the terrible consequences,' she said.

She added that mesothelioma is the most awful disease. 'Watching a previously fit and healthy man in his 50s deteriorate so quickly and live in so much pain was indescribable,' she said. 'All Neil wanted to do towards the end was to enjoy a pint a cider or to go out on a Harley Davidson motorbike.'

With Neil's blessing, Sarah began a claim against Steve Hill Ltd. The Withams' case is made even more tragic because they were fostering two children with special needs, with plans to adopt. They had decided that Neil would give up work to care for the children, while Sarah would go back to her job as a specialist paediatric diabetic nurse once the children – two siblings – had settled in.

Since 2017 when Neil was diagnosed with mesothelioma, Sarah looked after Neil as well as the children.
Originally Neil's case was with solicitors who mishandled the details, pursuing the wrong employer and telling Sarah it would be worth very little. She subsequently contacted HASAG who then put her in touch with Dushal Mehta and Fieldfisher.

The case has recently settled for just under £1million, including provision for Sarah for the loss of Neil's care and support of the children which would have allowed her to return to work. Despite the defendant arguing foster children were not classed as dependants under the Fatal Accident Act 1976, the judge agreed that Neil's death meant that Sarah could not go back to work so the loss of Neil's support was hers. She has continued to look after the children, who she says miss Neil 'every single minute of every day'.

As well as praising Dushal and HASAG, who were 'fantastically helpful', Sarah also said Katherine House Hospice, which looked after Neil and the whole family; they were 'amazing'. Part of the claim includes provision to repay the hospice for Neil's care.

'I want to raise awareness about the ignorance around mesothelioma,' Sarah said, 'to remind people the dangers are ongoing. There is asbestos in plenty of buildings and unless employers are vigilant, more people will be affected,' she said.