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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Q&A: Asbestos ruling
The decision by the Law Lords to allow people who have been exposed to asbestos while working with more than one employer to seek compensation is a landmark judgement.

BBC News Online examines the implications for workers and the insurance industry.

Why is the Law Lords' ruling a landmark judgement?

The Law Lords' decision overturns previous rulings by the High Court and Court of Appeal and sets a new legal precedent.

The ruling by the UK's highest court means people who have been exposed to asbestos while working for more than one employer are now legally entitled to seek compensation.

The lower courts had previously suggested that they were unable to seek compensation because they were unable to prove under which employer they had been exposed to a dust particle that may have caused their illness.

What does it mean for workers who have been exposed to asbestos?

The Law Lord's ruling paves the way for thousands of workers who claim to have been exposed to asbestos while working with more than one employer to seek compensation.

According to lawyers, hundreds of people have been waiting for the Law Lords to make their decision before deciding whether or not to proceed with their own claims for compensation.

The positive ruling means most will now pursue those claims.

However, thousands of cases could emerge in the coming years. This is because the time lag between exposure to asbestos dust and the development of asbestos cancer or mesothelioma is 20 years.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma or asbestos cancer 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.

Once the cancer has developed, many patients die within two to three years of being diagnosed.

At least 2,000 people are diagnosed with the cancer each year 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.

What does the ruling mean for insurance companies?

The Law Lords' ruling leaves the insurance industry facing a compensation bill that will undoubtedly run into billions of pounds.

Estimates suggest that the total cost over the coming years could be as high as 8bn.

That cost is already affecting the value of insurance companies. The value of shares in some of the UK's largest companies fell sharply within minutes of the ruling by the Law Lords.

See also:

07 May 02 | Health
Asbestos victim: My fight
07 May 02 | A-B
Asbestos disease
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