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Landmark Supreme Court decision paves the way for asbestos compensation

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The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has welcomed a UK Supreme Court ruling in favour of families seeking asbestos compensation.

UK Supreme Court Ruling

The judgement, which sets compensation liability from the time when victims were first exposed instead of when they became ill, could open the way for thousands of insurance claims.

The court ruled that the disease can be said to have been 'sustained' by an employee in the period when it was caused or initiated.

One of the 5 Supreme Court judges, Lord Clarke, said: "The negligent exposure of an employee to asbestos during the policy period has a sufficient causal link with subsequently-arising mesothelioma to trigger the insurer's obligation."

Families of people who died from mesothelioma, a fatal, asbestos-related cancer which attacks the lining of the lungs, are looking to claim on policies first taken out up to 70 years ago.

The judgement was applauded by the UK's biggest trade union, Unite, which said the court's decision will affect "many of the 2,500 people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year".

"It is a disgrace that insurance companies went to such lengths to shirk their responsibilities," said Unite's general secretary, Len McCluskey.

Welcoming the ruling, the ABI said the dispute was the fault of a small group of insurance firms. An ABI director, Nick Starling, insisted the association and its members are committed to paying compensation as quickly as possible.

"We have always opposed the attempt to change the basis on which mesothelioma claims should be paid, as argued by those who brought this litigation," said Mr Starling.

"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."

MMI, one of the 4 insurers involved in the case, said while the decision was not a "favoured outcome", the company welcomed the clarity it brought.

"This judgement… enables MMI to determine the extent of its liabilities and the available options for the future of MMI and its business," the firm said in a statement.

"MMI has continued to compensate local authority employers for mesothelioma claims, despite not being obliged to pay out claims until the outcome of the case was known. The underlying claimants (the victims of the disease) who have received compensation from MMI have been paid in full and have not been disadvantaged in any way by the fact that this case was brought."

The issue was taken to the Supreme Court after lower courts failed to deliver a resolution. Although victims' families were optimistic after 2008, when the High Court ruled that insurers were liable at the time fibres were inhaled, a later ruling had confused the issue and left relatives uncertain, lawyers said.

"In 2010 the Court of Appeal said that in some cases liability was triggered when a disease was first noticed," noted Emma Costin of Simpson Millar LLP, which acts frequently for victims of asbestos exposure.

"But it is now commonly accepted that the symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases can appear decades after initial exposure. For this reason we believe the Supreme Court's decision is entirely just."


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Emma Costin - Occupational Illness Solicitor - Bristol

Emma Costin
Partner, Head of Industrial Disease
T: 0844 858 3600
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