Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Tuesday, 3 June 2008 12:12 UK

Asbestos compensation case begins

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

A legal battle over compensation for asbestos victims is due to begin.

The High Court will decide whether insurers are liable for damages from sufferers' first exposure to asbestos, or from when they become ill.

The Unite trade union, which is backing workers exposed to the substance, said the insurance industry was trying to "dodge their liabilities".

But solicitors representing insurers argued that it was "common sense" that they be liable from the later date.

'Sickening scenario'

Asbestos-related disease is the biggest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, mainly affecting former workers in shipyards and other heavy industries.

The case concerns a type of cancer called mesothelioma, which can follow exposure to asbestos by 25 to 40 years.

It is expected to cost insurers millions of pounds as cases dating back to the 1970s come to light.

Our grief and sorrow is being dragged out and made worse
Maureen Edwards
'His suffering was agonising'

Employers take out liability insurance to insure them against the cost of legal action by staff injured at work.

The case concerns several insurers who are no longer taking on employers' liability insurance business.

These companies want to clarify whether the liability insurance policies they have previously sold to employers are "triggered" when employees or former employees develop the disease rather than at the time they are initially exposed to asbestos.

The companies argue workers could have been employed by several organisations that required them to deal with asbestos during their career.

The Association of British Insurers stressed insurers who were currently providing employers' liability insurance would continue to pay out from the moment employees were first put at risk.

Unions say that Employers' Liability Insurance was written on the understanding that the trigger is asbestos exposure, and accuse the insurers of trying to protect their profits at the expense of cancer sufferers and their families.

'Achieve justice'

In an earlier test case, the family of mesothelioma victim Charles O'Farrell, who died in 2003, were awarded 152,000.

But the Excess Insurance Company, which insured Mr O'Farrell's employers, has taken the case to the High Court.

By the time Mr O'Farrell developed the disease, the firm for which he worked had ceased trading - meaning that were the insurers' case to succeed, his family would not be due any compensation from them.

Mr O'Farrell's daughter, Maureen Edwards, said she wanted to achieve justice for her father.

"Our grief and sorrow is being dragged out and made worse by insurers who we feel are doing all they can to get away from their responsibility."

Peter Taylor, partner at legal firm Lovells, said: "This is a struggle between those who assert that the rules of common sense and commerciality should prevail, and those who insist on the application of long-standing legal rules and canons of commercial contracts."

But Derek Simpson, Unite's joint general secretary, said the industry had a duty to protect sufferers.

"What's at stake here is millions of pounds which should be used to compensate asbestos victims and not be pocketed by the insurance industry," he said.

"It is a sickening scenario, and we will fight every step of the way to see that insurers are not allowed to pass the buck and dodge their responsibilities."

The case is expected to last nine weeks and a decision is likely in the autumn.

However, both sides have indicated that they will appeal to the House of Lords if the ruling goes against them.

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