£600m compensation cleared for families struck by asbestos cancers

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In a landmark victory for campaigners for fair asbestos compensation, the Supreme Court will rule in favour of thousands of families whose relatives died due to asbestos-related cancers.

asbestos

The court will say that insurers who offered cover when victims first inhaled asbestos dust will be obliged to pay compensation.

4 insurance companies have fought to minimise payouts to 6,000 families with members who have died or are suffering from mesothelioma, a fatal, asbestos-related cancer which attacks the lining of the lungs.

The court ruling could mean a compensation bill of over £600m. If future claims are considered, up to 25,000 families could be affected, with a potential bill of some £5bn.

The case has been running since 2006 and has been through the High Court and the Court of Appeal, making it one of the longest in legal history. With most of the cancer patients affected by its ruling now dead, relatives have been awaiting the outcome.

The battle has become known as the Trigger case, since it is based on whether a victim should claim from the insurer at the time of the exposure which eventually 'triggers' cancer, or at a later time when the illness develops.

The insurers – MMI, Builders Accident, Excess and the Independent Insurance Company – claimed that employers were only liable from the point when cancerous tumours started to develop, not from the time of actual exposure to the fibres.

However, development of the cancer can take decades, and many building firms whose workers were exposed to asbestos in the 1960s and 1970s have long ceased trading. Had the families lost the Trigger case, they would not be compensated, despite victims' employers having paid substantial insurance premiums in good faith.

For around 40 years from 1967, insurers routinely paid out on similar cases. However, an unrelated case which said that mesothelioma victims only "suffered injury" when tumours started to develop created what the litigants argued was a legal precedent.

If an insurance firm is saved money in asbestos payouts, executives are often paid extra. Ian Willett of MMI even conceded that a successful result of the case would probably affect his bonus.

The litigants' move was regarded as highly controversial by the insurance industry. Most firms distanced themselves from the case, including the Association of British Insurers.

Emma Costin of Simpson Millar LLP, which has frequently acted for victims of asbestos exposure, criticised the 4 insurers for trying to avoid the compensation they were morally, and now legally, obliged to provide. "They were happy to charge vast premiums for decades, yet hid behind the tragic reality of the lengthy period asbestos-related diseases take to incubate and the fact that many of the relevant building firms no longer exist."

Compensation payouts for mesothelioma, which can be caused by inhaling a single fibre of asbestos, are usually close to £200,000. It is likely the court will order that families connected with the case will receive damages payments within a fortnight of the ruling.

The ruling should also herald new government measures on asbestos compensation. Before the 2010 general election, Labour ministers tabled proposals for a 'fund of last resort' for asbestos cancer victims unable to find the policies set up by their employers. However, the coalition advised campaigners that this policy would be on hold pending the conclusion of the Trigger case.


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Emma Costin - Occupational Illness Solicitor - Bristol

Emma Costin
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