A UK painter’s daughter has won a five-year court battle for insurance compensation for her late father’s fatal illness—and that of thousands of others—from asbestos exposure.
In a landmark judgment, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that insurers’ liability for occupational exposure to asbestos begins at the time of the exposure—not when symptoms of illness begin to emerge, which can be up to 50 years later.
|Ruth Durham said her late father, painter Leslie Screach, “knew he wouldn't live to see the win, but he always said it was about people behind.”|
The ruling overturned an appeals-court decision in a case brought by a group of insurers, who had argued that their liability should begin only if and when symptoms of asbestos-related illness develop.
The plaintiffs noted, however, that mesothelioma—a fatal cancer caused by asbestos exposure—can develop decades after the exposure.
“I'm overjoyed with the decision,” said Ruth Durham, the lead claimant in the case, whose father, Leslie Screach, died in 2003. “Justice has been done. It is the end of a very long battle, very hard-fought battle.”
As a paint sprayer in West London, Screach was exposed to asbestos fibers on the job between 1963 and 1968. News reports did not identify Screach’s employer or provide details of his exposure.
"I was determined to see this through with a positive outcome for all those who, like my dad, suffered so terribly because of someone else's negligence,” Durham told Sky News.
‘Worth Fighting For’
“We had been very close, and really were good friends. During the Second World War, Dad learned to use sign language and when I decided to learn, we used to practice together.
“It became our special way of communicating with one another and, when he was diagnosed with cancer, he couldn't bring himself to tell me directly and just made the sign for ‘cancer’ to let me know the terrible news.
“I miss him every day, and no sum of money will ever bring him back or make up for what he went through."
In another interview, Durham said her father “knew he wouldn't live to see the win, but he always said it was about people behind, because of this 40-year-plus gestation period.”
“It's very easy for the insurers to think they can get out of it,” she said. "Well, obviously now we have proved that it is worth fighting for.”
‘Sufficient Causal Link’
The Supreme Court ruled, 4-1, that insurance liability was “triggered" when workers were exposed to the dust. The judges said the employee could be said to have “sustained” or “contracted” the disease at that time, even though it did not develop or become apparent until later.
US Geological Survey
|Illness from exposure to respirable asbestos fibers may take decades to manifest.|
“The negligent exposure of an employee to asbestos during the policy [insurance] period has a sufficient causal link with subsequently arising mesothelioma to trigger the insurer's obligation," said British justice secretary Lord Clarke.
Not all insurers were unhappy with the judgment. A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers told The Guardian that his association welcomed the ruling.
Nick Starling said, "Today's ruling by the Supreme Court has confirmed what most in the industry have always understood: that the insurer on cover when the claimant was exposed to asbestos should pay the claim, rather than the insurer on cover when the mesothelioma develops.”
The judgment affects about 6,000 plaintiff families and could cost insurers between £600 million and £5 billion ($953 million to $7.9 billion U.S.), reports said. The families filed claims on behalf of loved ones who died from mesothelioma, after inhaling asbestos fibers during their employment from the late 1940s to the late 1990s.
Britain has one of the world’s highest rates of asbestos-related deaths. So does Australia, where the ruling may well set a precedent.
Helen Ashton, Durham’s attorney, called asbestos-related disease one of the biggest workplace killers in Britain, causing more than 5,000 deaths each year. Because it can take so long for the disease to develop, the number of deaths in the UK is not expected to peak until 2015, Ashton told reporters.
She added, “This judgment means that the thousands of people who are yet to be given the devastating news that they have the deadly illness will at least know that their families can get access to justice and receive the financial security they need.”
Unite, the largest trade union in Britain and Ireland, said the ruling would affect “many of the 2,500 people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.” The union was also a party in the case.
Asbestos Exposure and Laws
From sprayed coatings to pipe wrapping to boiler lining to fire-proofing to shingles, asbestos was once widely used in construction and shipbuilding. Approximately 100,000 people in the United States have died, or will die, from asbestos exposure related to shipbuilding alone.
In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency moved to ban asbestos, but the rule was overturned in 1991 in Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA. The ruling said, among other things, that the EPA had not sufficiently explored the safety of asbestos alternatives before issuing the ban.
The ruling leaves many products that can still legally contain trace amounts of asbestos. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates asbestos exposure in the workplace.
The European Union, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and New Zealand have all banned the use of asbestos in new construction, but many asbestos-laced older structures remain. Asbestos is still in widespread use in China, India, Russia and Brazil.