FAMILIES of workers killed by an asbestos-related cancer have won their fight for compensation at the Supreme Court, in a move that could cost insurers up to £5billion.
Judges ruled insurance liability was “triggered” when employees were exposed to asbestos dust – not when symptoms of mesothelioma emerged.
Wearside’s history of heavy industry – especially shipbuilding – makes it a national blackspot for asbestos-related conditions.
Legal experts say the ruling by the UK’s highest court means employers’ insurers will have to pay compensation claims on policies from the late 1940s to the late 1990s.
The two sides have been locked in a battle over exactly when liability should begin for more than five years.
The families won the first round of their battle in 2008, when the High Court said insurers at the time workers inhaled fibres were liable, but that was partially overturned two years later, when the Court of Appeal ruled liability in some cases was triggered when symptoms developed – potentially decades after exposure.
A panel of five Supreme Court justices had heard argument about a group of lead cases at a hearing in London in December and delivered judgment yesterday.
The court ruled the disease could be said to have been “sustained” by an employee in the period when it was caused or initiated, even though it only developed or manifested itself later.
North East law firm Thompson and Co has represented dozens of claimants.
Spokesman Philip Thompson said: “We are delighted to see that common sense has prevailed and that the efforts of a small group of insurers to escape liability for these asbestos-related claims have been thwarted.
“This has been a long-running and thorny issue and if the case had gone the other way, it would have been disastrous news for many current and future sufferers of asbestos-related diseases, and their families.
Northern TUC regional secretary Kevin Rowan said: “This is the best possible outcome for the thousands of people diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases every year – and their families who have to endure the pain and suffering with them.
“It was a nonsense that this ever had to be taken to the Supreme Court in the first place and we are delighted that common sense – and decency has prevailed.”
Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott said: “I am pleased the thousands of families whose relatives died from exposure from this killer substance can now claim compensation.
“After years of court battles, it is unfortunate the victims and their families have had to go to these lengths to seek the justice they are entitled to.
“Exposure to asbestos has blighted and cut short the lives of victims and it is some relief that they and their families can now claim the compensation that they deserve.”
FREDA Simpson knows all about the legal challenges of claiming compensation for asbestos-related illness.
The 75-year-old, from Concord in Washington, developed pleural plaques – scarring of the lungs – after being exposed to asbestos when she was just four.
Her elder sister worked at the notorious Washington Chemical Company plant.
“My mother used to wash her clothes and they reckoned that was where I got it from,” she said.
Freda was diagnosed with pleural plaques in 2000 and instructed solicitors to pursue a claim but received no compensation due to a legal battle being fought out in the courts.
She eventually turned to the The Northern Region Asbestos Support and Campaign Group, which was set up by the Northern TUC.
The group provides free support and advice to victims of asbestos-related diseases and their families, and it has recovered tens of thousands of pounds in compensation for more than 100 sufferers.
Freda received a £5,000 payment just a few months after getting in touch with the group.
She is still pursuing a second claim.