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Mesothelioma / asbestos litigation: London hospice wins landmark case

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In a landmark decision, the High Court has ordered a company that exposed a former worker to asbestos, who later died of mesothelioma, to pay damages to the hospice that cared for him.

James Willson died of mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos when working for engineering firm Foster Wheeler in the early 1950s at Deptford power station. The court ruled that he was "continuously exposed to the danger of inhaling asbestos dust while working at the power station" and "neither warned by his employer of the dangers of this exposure nor was he provided with respiratory protection".

Symptoms of mesothelioma, an incurable disease, include shortness of breath and chest pain, and may not appear until 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Indeed, Mr Willson was not diagnosed until 2006.

Before he died, aged 76, Mr Willson received 23 days of care at St Joseph's Hospice in Hackney, east London. The cost of providing palliative care at St Joseph's is around £900 a day, of which 35% is paid by the NHS and the rest through charitable donations.

His two daughters and the executrices of his estate wanted to make a donation to the hospice but had "very limited resources" themselves, and therefore argued that Foster Wheeler and/or their insurers should pay.

After a three-year legal battle, the High Court agreed.

Judge Anthony Thornton dismissed fears that "the so-called floodgates will open" as a result of the ruling. He said the decision was "consistent with established principles and it is unlikely that there will be a significant number of claims in the future".

Mark Gould of the Guardian speculates otherwise, however, and notes the ruling could lead to "thousands of claims from hospices" in coming years, particularly as the number of& mesothelioma cases is set to peak at over 2,450 a year in the next decade.

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