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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 00:05 GMT 01:05 UK
Asbestos victims launch court battle
Building site
Asbestos was used in building materials
Three people affected by asbestos cancer are appealing to the Law Lords for compensation in what could be a landmark case.

The Law Lords are considering three test cases of a man who has mesothelioma - asbestos cancer - and two widows whose husbands died of the disease.

Their decision could potentially affect thousands of people over the next 20 years.

The Court of Appeal previously upheld a High Court judgement that compensation could not be paid in a case where a worker was exposed to the deadly dust by more than one employer.

A lung x-ray
Mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lung
This is the decision which is being challenged in the House of Lords.

Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, representing two of the claimants, told five Law Lords headed by Lord Bingham that the Appeal Court decision was "unduly narrow and mechanistic".

The cases centres on the principal of the "fatal fibre".

In theory, it is possible that cancer could have been caused by just one speck or fibre of asbestos dust.

So, if a worker was exposed to asbestos at more than one company insurers' lawyers argue it is not possible to say which was the source of the fatal fibre.

However, the court was told on Tuesday that cancer-causing damage was likely to be culmulative rather than from a single fibre, meaning that both firms should be culpable.

Compensation

The previous two courts have considered the case of former council worker, Eric Fairchild, who died from mesothelioma in 1996, aged 60.

Mr Fairchild was exposed to substantial quantities of asbestos when he worked for Leeds City Council in the early 1960s and again six years later when he took up a job with a company at another building in the city.

The Law Lords will also hear the cases of Doreen Fox, whose husband died from mesothelioma and Eddy Matthews, who is seriously ill with the cancer.


We think that it is not acceptable that people with mesothelioma are denied compensation

John Parker, Association of British Insurers
He was awarded 155,000 compensation last July, but his former employers appealed and won, so he has not yet seen a penny of the money.

Mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lung or abdomen. It can cause a great deal of pain, and responds poorly to surgery and therapies.

Around 90% of cases occur in people who have experienced "significant exposure" to asbestos.

It develops at least 20 years after exposure and many patients die within two to three years of being diagnosed.

Heavy industry link

At least 2,000 people are diagnosed with the cancer each year, according to the British Thoracic Society - but numbers are expected to rise until 2020, because of the time-lag between exposure and disease.

Most victims of illnesses associated with the deadly dust come from areas linked to heavy industries such as shipbuilding and engineering.

Mrs Fairchild told BBC News Online said she hoping the appeal court's decision would be overturned because otherwise "no-one in the future is going to be able to gain any compensation from their employers".

But Chris Phillips, from solicitors Halliwell Landau, who is representing the insurers in Mrs Fairchild's case, said it was not possible to say where the "fatal fibre" that caused the cancer came from.

He said: "Under our current legal system, you have to provide the cause - and if you can't provide that, you can't succeed."

However, the umbrella group for the insurance industry believes that mesothelioma victims do deserve some form of compensation.

John Parker, from the Association of British Insurers, told the BBC: "We think that it is not acceptable that people with mesothelioma are denied compensation, which is one of the reasons we put forward the idea of a voluntary scheme to provide compensation."

He estimated that approximately 2,000 people each year develop the disease, with each perhaps due approximately 100,000 in compensation.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Chris Hogg
"In each case a worker became gravely ill or died from mesothelioma"
See also:

11 Dec 01 | Health
Legal blow to asbestos victims
27 Apr 01 | Health
Asbestos death toll rises
07 May 02 | A-B
Asbestos disease
07 May 02 | Health
Asbestos victim: My fight
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