UK Supreme Court judgement upholds mesothelioma verdicts

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UK Supreme Court judgement upholds mesothelioma verdicts

11th March 2011

An Industrial Disease expert has welcomed news that the families of two women who died after so-called 'low-level' asbestos exposure have won landmark legal victories.

Bridget Collier, head of the Industrial Disease team at Fentons Solicitors LLP, was speaking after The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the relatives of Dianne Willmore and Enid Costello, both of whom died of malignant mesothelioma following past exposure to asbestos whilst at school and at work respectively.

"Mesothelioma is a hideous and inevitably fatal disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres," said Bridget, a partner with the firm. "These rulings are of huge significance for anyone who may have contracted mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos in the past either in the workplace or whilst at school."

The Supreme Court upheld a £240,000 compensation payout to Dianne Willmore, a 49 year-old Merseyside mother-of-two who became the first case of a former pupil successfully suing a local authority for negligent exposure to asbestos dust.

"Mrs Willmore clearly remembered Council workmen removing asbestos ceiling tiles and leaving them stacked in busy school corridors whilst she was a pupil at Bowring Comprehensive School in Merseyside in the 1970's," said Bridget. "Mrs Willmore died the day after a judge ruled she was entitled to £240,000 compensation in 2009, mercifully unaware that Knowsley Council planned to freeze the award while they appealed the decision."

Enid Costello died in 2006 aged 74, contending she had contracted mesothelioma after having inhaled dust containing asbestos whilst working as a secretary for Greif (UK) Ltd at a packaging factory in Ellesmere Port in the 1960s and 70s.

"Mrs Costello was exposed to low levels of asbestos whilst simply walking around her workplace, in particular in order to meet her husband who worked on the factory floor," said Bridget. "After analysing the evidence in relation to Mrs Costello's workplace asbestos exposure, the trial Judge concluded that her exposure had increased her risk of developing mesothelioma from the background risk of 24 cases per million to 28.39 cases per million, an increase of 18%."

Like Mrs Willmore, Mrs Costello's claim was initially unsuccessful, but after being referred to the Court of Appeal, a ruling was made that compensation should be paid in both cases. Knowsley Council and Greif (UK) Ltd then chose to fight the rulings in The Supreme Court arguing that they could only be held liable if it could be proved they were responsible for causing asbestos exposure that had at least 'doubled the risk' of mesothelioma.

"Thankfully seven Supreme Court justices unanimously rejected the arguments ruling that there was no requirement for a claimant to show a doubling of risk," said Bridget. "In cases where asbestos is involved, a risk of exposure is a risk of harm.

"The decision made by the Law Lords is absolutely the right one. The defendants were attempting to change the law - in effect they were attempting to ensure that fewer people dying of this terrible disease would be properly compensated."

Medically, there is no minimum threshold dose of asbestos below which a risk of contracting mesothelioma does not exist. The rules governing the attribution of causation to those responsible for exposing victims to asbestos dust currently state that when a victim contracts mesothelioma, each person who has, in breach of duty, been responsible for exposing victims - and thus creating a 'material increase in risk' of victims contracting the fatal cancer - will be held to be jointly and severally liable for causing the disease.

The government has now been called to address the risk of low-level asbestos exposure to children in schools. At present some three-quarters of school buildings in the UK contain asbestos, potentially putting thousands of pupils at risk through negligent asbestos management. It has been known now for several years that children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of even low-level asbestos exposure.

"This case is of huge importance with enormous implications for local authorities and insurers as it my well pave the way for similar claims," said Bridget. "It is yet another wake-up call for employers who have known about the inherent dangers of asbestos and the associated risks of mesothelioma since the early 1960's. With regard to asbestos in schools, in the last decade alone 140 teachers have died of mesothelioma," she said.

"If teachers are dying after being exposed to asbestos, then it is surely inevitable that it is only a matter of time before we see more and more pupils suffering the same fate."

How can Fentons help?
Fentons has a specialist department experienced in handling claims for victims of industrial diseases including asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma.

If you think that you have a case or require further information contact Fentons on 0800 0191 297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.

Read more at - BBC