Breakthrough in asbestos test case
4 May 1999
A specialist personal injury law firm is claiming a major breakthrough in claims for asbestos-related diseases.
John Pickering & Partners, which has offices in Manchester, Oldham, Liverpool and Halifax, believes it has pioneered a new class of action regarding asbestos-related diseases.
The firm's claim comes in the wake of a ground-breaking settlement for u110,000 of an action brought by a widow in Oxted, Surrey.
Eileen Ashford's husband, Graham, died of mesothelioma 40 years after he had worked with asbestos when lagging pipes. The circumstances leading to his death were very common. Equally common is the fact that the small plumbing firm he had worked for had long been out of business by the time he became ill.
Such companies can be revived for the purpose of legal claims. But any claims are futile if the company's insurers - if it had any in the first place - cannot be traced.
It was not until 1972 that it became compulsory for employers to insure their workers against the risk of injury and there has never been any requirement for employers to retain the records of insurers after the cover has ended.
James Thompson, a partner at Pickerings and one of the UK's leading experts on asbestos-related claims, acting for Ashford, decided to turn his guns on a bigger target - asbestos multinational T&N, which had supplied the asbestos that her husband had worked with.
He launched an action alleging that T&N was negligent in that it failed to put a health warning on its products even though it had known of the dangers of asbestos as far back as the 1920s.
The case has not been litigated, so there is no firm ruling from a judge on this type of claim.
But Thompson claims that a settlement of such a size is of major significance and that it gives hope to people in similar positions who are either suffering from asbestos-related diseases or have been widowed as a result.
"Unfortunately, this disease is a slow one and all too often the situation arises where the company the person has worked for has gone out of business a long time ago and there is no-one to sue," says Thompson.
"What has happened here shows that all is not lost. Fortunately it is fairly easy to trace where asbestos has come from because there is only a relatively small circle of producers.
"We have already had other, smaller, settlements with similar claims," he adds, "but this one is a major breakthrough and I believe holds out a lot of hope for others.
"T&N knew that asbestos was highly dangerous for its own workers in the 1920s, but did not put any health warnings on its products until the 1970s.
"As an industry leader, it had the opportunity to reduce levels of asbestos disease because of its knowledge of the risks. Sadly, it did nothing."
Thompson says knowledge of asbestos-associated health risks stretches back a long way. As early as the mid-1930s, medical research reported an association between asbestosis and cancer, and by the late 1950s T&N knew of the link between asbestos and mesothelioma.
By 1965 the dangers had become public knowledge and in the 1970s T&N and other asbestos producers agreed on a voluntary labelling code with the Health and Safety Executive.
All this is cold comfort to those who have suffered as a result of the disease. Now, however, Thompson hopes that the new line of action, taken directly against the manufacturers rather than employers, will provide fresh hope of compensation for people who might otherwise have received nothing.