Gearing up for mobile phone deluge
14 June 1999
Chris Hodges, partner, Cameron McKenna
Martin Bruffell, partner, Berrymans Lace Mawer
Antony Colman, partner, Pritchard Englefield
Concerns are now rife over whether mobile phones can be the cause of serious health problems.
Last month, medical studies in Sweden and the US revealed that mobile phones have the potential to cause serious health risks, including giving users brain tumours.
And as product liability and personal injury lawyers know, if mobile phones are proven to endanger health, a flood of claims against telecommunications companies and employers will be the result.
But will health problems linked to technology have the potential to rock the legal profession in the same way as the recent multimillion pound actions against the tobacco giants? And if so, how will lawyers prepare themselves?
Chris Hodges, healthcare partner at Cameron McKenna, believes there will be an onslaught of claims in the future, and that only firms with experience in the area will be able to cope.
"One thing that firms can do, which we have been doing for some time, is to have doctors on board," he says. "Not many firms are doing this at the moment."
However, he adds: "Preparation is not going to decide which firms get the work when it arises."
He says lawyers who handle this work need to follow three criteria: "First, they must be product liability specialists. Second, they must know how to deal with environmental law. And third, they must have multi-party experience."
However, he believes that only a handful of firms in the profession have the resources to cope with a potential minefield of claims.
Martin Bruffell, personal injury partner at Berrymans Lace Mawer and president of the Forum of Insurance Lawyer, urges firms to wait to see what evidence actually arises of mobile phone health problems before they start investing too much time and money on the issue.
"We must remember that firms got their fingers burnt by rushing into the tobacco issue," he says. "There are lots of reports of mobile phone health risks at the moment, but nothing has been proved. I remain open-minded."
However, he does admit that he expects there to be a growing number of claims that will set precedents and solve the conundrum over cellphones and health. This, he says, will eventually turn it into a well-practised area of law, with precedents and more technical evidence.
He adds: "The great thing about common law is that it is only restricted by the imagination of lawyers."
Also, according to Bruffell, these claims have the potential to affect wider areas of the profession, including insurance lawyers: "Insurance panels will pick up a lot of work."
But he adds that firms that are thinking of employing in-house doctors now may be creating an unjustified drain on expenses. "They would not be independent experts anyway," he says.
To add even more complexity to the debate, he points out that lawyers do not yet seem to have considered that there may be a range of health claims attached to cellphones, not just cancer.
Antony Colman, litigation partner at Pritchard Englefield, agrees with Hodges that firms must prepare now for a possible onslaught of claims, but he has a different idea of how they should ready themselves.
"I don't think we can see things like BSE, genetically modified foods and such like in isolation. Mobile phones should be added to the list," he says.
"The situation is comparable to asbestos and tobacco in the 1950s and 1960s. The scale of this problem - if it is a problem - will be vast."
However, he qualifies this when he says that firms should be wary of investing too much in preparing for possible claims, and he cites the fact that firms lost money over representing tobacco victims on a no-win, no-fee basis.
"Firms that rush in will be taking a large risk because legal aid will not be available," he says.