Page last updated at 14:54 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 15:54 UK

Row in asbestos compensation case

By Martin Shankleman
Employment Correspondent, BBC News

Lung x-ray
Mesothelioma most often affects the lining of the lungs

A "greedy scheming" insurance industry is plotting to deny asbestos victims their rightful compensation, according to the building industry union, UCATT.

UCATT's head told the Labour Conference that 40 people a week die of lung cancer, triggered by asbestos exposure.

However, because the disease can take 30 years to develop, many people have retired by the time they fall ill, and thus do not have a current insurer.

Insurers rejected the claim, saying they were neither greedy nor scheming.

Legal row

Earlier this summer the insurance industry took a case to the High Court, to establish whether an insurer at the time a person was exposed to asbestos should be responsible for paying compensation for any resulting illness.

This is not a question of insurers looking to evade their responsibilities, this is a question of obtaining legal clarity
Malcolm Tarling, Association of British Insurers

UCATT said that if the industry was successful with its case, then hundreds of asbestos victims would no longer receive compensation, saving itself billions in reduced claims.

The victims suffer incurable cancer of the lining of lungs, called mesothelioma.

"Victims die an agonising death," said the general secretary of UCATT, Alan Ritchie. "It is sickening that the insurance industry wants to block their compensation."

But the Association of British Insurers (ABI) angrily rejected Mr Ritchie's claim.

"The industry is neither greedy not scheming", said ABI spokesman Malcolm Tarling.

"This is not a question of insurers looking to evade their responsibilities, this is a question of obtaining legal clarity, basically what is the event that triggers asbestos related illness.

"Is it when a person is first exposed to asbestos fibres or is it the time when the symptoms become apparent?"

The UCATT motion was accepted at today's Labour Conference, but that does not mean it will become Labour Party policy.

Court case

The family of one asbestos victim, Charles O'Farrell, is entangled in the legal wrangling over precisely when his incurable disease started.

Mr O'Farrell died in 2003, aged 81, after being exposed to asbestos while working as a steel erector in the 1960s in Bootle on Merseyside.

His family has been awarded 152,000 in damages against Excess Insurance, which had insured Mr O'Farrell's employer.

But Excess has challenged the ruling, and taken it to the High Court, arguing that by the time Mr O'Farrell developed the disease, his employer had ceased trading.

If Excess wins the appeal, it would not have to pay any money to the family.


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