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Law Lords Allow Claims For Asbestos-Related Disease When More Than One Employer Is Involved

May 16, 2002 | AP

After years of litigation, hundreds of victims of asbestos-related diseases who were exposed to the mineral fibers by more than one employer won their battle for compensation Thursday.

In a decision that will hit insurers hard, Britain's highest court of appeal ruled that people suffering from asbestos-related diseases are entitled to compensation, even if they are uncertain which source of the dust caused their illness.

The Law Lords — five judges who sit in the House of Lords — overturned a Court of Appeal ruling in December that employers could not be held liable where it was impossible to prove which exposure caused the disease.

Experts say the decision is likely to cost insurance companies up to 8 billion pounds (dlrs 12 billion) to settle around 500 claims.

George Brumwell, general secretary of the union Ucatt, which backed the action, said the judgment "will help thousands of sufferers from asbestos-related diseases and will teach the insurance industry a lesson it will never forget.

"The insurance companies have been shamed by this decision," he said.

Led by Lord Bingham, the Law Lords spent three days hearing argument in three test cases.

Lawyers for Judith Fairchild and Doreen Fox, whose husbands both died of mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, and 54-year-old Edwin Matthews, who is gravely ill with mesothelioma, had appealed the Appeal Court decision.

Fairchild, whose husband Arthur died in 1996, said Thursday's ruling was "the right result, not only for myself but the thousands affected by this terrible disease. My husband deserved to win."

She can now expect compensation of around 191,000 pounds (dlrs 277,000.

The Law Lords' decision also means that Matthews can keep 155,000 pounds (dlrs 224,000) awarded him earlier by the High Court. The Appeal Court had overturned that decision and ordered him to repay the money.

Adrian Budgen, a partner in the law firm Irwin Mitchell, which handles many asbestos-related cases, described the ruling as "fair and compassionate."

"In the coming years there will be literally thousands of people in the U.K. who will develop asbestos-related illnesses and lose loved ones due to past exposure to asbestos.

"At least they will now have the comfort of knowing that the British justice system is on their side."

Around 5,000 people died in Britain last year of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, and industry experts say the figure is expected to rise to 10,000 by 2010.

Asbestos is a mineral that was popular as a thermal insulator. But while manufacturers and the government were aware of the health risks associated with occupational asbestos exposure, it continued to be widely used until the mid-1970s as an insulator and fireproofer.

People who were most-exposed to the substance — construction workers, welders, ship builders and auto mechanics — have been increasingly diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, such as lung fibrosis and mesothelomia. It can take 50 years from the time of exposure to asbestos for the cancer to show up.

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