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Thursday, 21 May, 1998, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Nurse loses landmark smoking case
ashtray
Sylvia Sparrow says working with smokers triggered asthma
A nurse who claimed she developed asthma through exposure to passive smoking in an old people's home has lost her claim for damages in a landmark court case.

Mr Justice Holland ruled at the High Court in Manchester that the management of the home had taken all practical steps in view of 60-year-old Sylvia Sparrow's health problems.

The nurse who claims she was forced to leave her job at the Worsley Lodge home in Swinton, Greater Manchester, had argued that her asthma was triggered by her being forced to work in a "smokers corner", where elderly residents would smoke almost constantly.

The judge said the only issue he had to decide was whether the former owners of the home, St Andrew's Homes Ltd, were in breach of their duty in failing to do all that was reasonably practical to reduce Mrs Sparrow's exposure to smoke after she was diagnosed as having asthma in February, 1990.

The judge said: "Weighing all the factors I have to find the plaintiff has failed to prove the defendants were negligent ... I cannot uphold that the system of work was negligent."

Sylvia Sparrow
Asthma made her give up her job in 1992
Mrs Sparrow was also ordered to pay the costs of defending her action and to hand over 5,000 that had been lodged with the court in advance.

In the first case of its kind to come before the courts in England and Wales, Mrs Sparrow was said to have been predisposed to asthma.

But a doctor called on her behalf said she would never have developed it without being exposed to the levels of smoke in the area in which she had to work.

She had sought damages for injury, loss of earnings and being forced to give up her job.

Mrs Sparrow started working at the home in 1986, but had only been diagnosed with asthma in February, 1990, when a letter from her GP said she should be in a smoke-free environment.

The judge said it was common ground that Mrs Sparrow reacted adversely to cigarette smoke - but what the case was about was her employers' system of work and whether they had fulfilled their duty.

"It is for others to make what they will of this judgment but I am not conscious of issues of passive smoking," said the judge.

"There is nothing in this judgment to encourage or discourage anyone who believes they are adversely affected by such."

The judge said the home's former matron Anne Jackson had told the earlier hearing there was nothing she could have reasonably done to stop elderly patients smoking in their lounge and he found her evidence "impressive and honest."

"Did she satisfy me they had done all they could that was reasonably practical to ensure a safe system of work? The answer is yes," said the judge.

He said that while asthma attacks should not be minimised neither could they be described as equal to an injury of great severity.

He said the home's duty of care embraced the patients as well as the staff and it could be that if the interests of the patients justified Mrs Sparrow being moved into the smokers area there might have been no other practical course open to them.

Commonsense and legal authorities suggested that an employer's needs to take account of their workers' susceptibilities "had to be kept within bounds," he said.

"That is as much a problem for employees as employers."

He said he did not find the matter of the relationship between passive smoking and asthma an easy one to resolve. He could not be satisfied with the evidence of a doctor who said that on the "balance of probabilities" there was a finding that one caused the other.

Speaking after the judge's decision Mrs Sparrow said: "My family and I are very disappointed with the judge's decision. I believe my medical evidence supports the view that I developed asthma and chest problems as a direct result of working in a smoky atmosphere at Worsley Lodge nursing home."

But she said she felt she had achieved something. "There are people out there suffering and they need to stand up and be counted. This is not going to go away. They've got to do something about it."

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