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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 21:31 GMT 22:31 UK
Asbestos victims win landmark case
Three people affected by asbestos cancer have won a groundbreaking case for compensation in the House of Lords.
The Law Lords were examining test cases brought by a man who has mesothelioma - asbestos cancer - and two widows whose husbands died of the disease.
They were appealing against previous rulings by the Court of Appeal and the High Court denying them compensation on the basis that they were exposed to the deadly dust by more than one employer.
The decision to overturn those rulings paves the way for thousands of similar claims and could leave insurance companies facing a bill of between £6bn and £8bn in the coming years.
The Law Lords' took the unusual step of announcing their decision before giving their reasons so that compensation claims which had been on hold could go ahead.
The cases centred on the principle 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.
If the insurers' case had been upheld, it could have affected claims in other work-related diseases cases, and in cases against tobacco companies who could have argued it was uncertain which cigarette had caused lung cancer, for example.
One case considered was that of former council worker which had been considered by previous courts was that of Eric Fairchild, who died from mesothelioma in 1996, aged 60.
He 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.
After the judgement, Mrs Fairchild told the BBC: "I was delighted at the judgement - surprised, but delighted."
He was awarded £155,000 compensation last July, but his former employers appealed and won, so he has not yet received any of the money.
Anthony Coombs from Manchester-based solicitors John Pickering and Partners, who represented Mr Matthews and Mrs Fox: "Hundreds of asbestos cancer victims have been waiting for this result.
"They and future victims will be relieved that justice has prevailed."
Adrian Budgen, partner at national law firm Irwin Mitchell who represents many people suffering from asbestos-related diseases, said: "It is also unquestionably right that the guilty polluter should be made to pay, rather than the innocent taxpayer."
But he added: "It is very sad that scores of mesothelioma sufferers have died during the last few months (since the Court of Appeal's ruling) without knowing whether their loved ones will be provided for."
Chris Phillips, head of litigation at Halliwell Landau which acted for the insurance company in Mrs Fairchild's case said: "The House of Lords has today ruled in favour of the appellants in the Fairchild case overturning the previous Court of Appeal decision concerning causation last December.
"Clearly we will look at the reasons for the judgment when they are given in a few weeks time."
He said Mrs Fairchild's claim was being paid immediately following the Law Lords' decision.
The Association of British Insurers said insurers would welcome the clarity provided by the ruling.
George Brumwell, leader of the construction workers' union UCATT said the Law Lords' decision to overturn earlier judgements was "an historic victory".
He said: "This judgement will help tens of thousands of sufferers from the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma and will teach the insurance industry a lesson it will never forget."
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.
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.
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