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Employers' liability: Families of asbestos victims win legal case

Relatives of asbestos workers who died from cancers related to the handling of the dangerous material have won a compensation battle in the Supreme Court, ending years of legal wrangling.

The decision means that employers' insurance companies will have to settle compensation claims.

The legal fight for compensation began more than five years ago, with relatives of victims attempting to claim from policies dating from as long ago as the late 1940's. Lawyers working in the field claim that yesterday's ruling could impact upon thousands of claims.

The ruling concerned claims against employers' liability policies, which judges yesterday ruled were 'triggered' when individuals were exposed to asbestos dust as part of their employment. Lawyers representing the insurance companies argued that policies were only activated when individuals developed symptoms of mesothelioma, the deadly form of lung cancer associated with asbestos handling.

In their ruling, the five Supreme Court judges said that the disease was sustained by employees when they were exposed to the fibres, even though symptoms may not have developed until decades later.

In his ruling, Lord Clarke said: "The negligent exposure of an employee to asbestos during the policy period has a sufficient causal link with subsequently arising mesothelioma to trigger the insurer's obligation."

Unite, the largest trade union in the UK, were responsible for bringing the appeal case on behalf of the family of one of their members, Charles O'Farrell, who died from mesothelioma in 2003. Unite welcomed the ruling saying that it would have a positive impact for the thousands of families and individuals affected by mesothelioma each year.

"This is a landmark ruling which will affect thousands of victims of asbestos. It is a disgrace that insurance companies went to such lengths to shirk their responsibilities. For callous insurers this means the responsibility holiday is over," said Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite.

Lawyer Helen Ashton of Irwin Mitchell, who represented the claimant in this case, said the ruling was important not just for those exposed to asbestos, but to all those who suffer from a workplace illness.

"The ruling will also have important wider implications for people suffering from all workplace illnesses. This will impact on anyone suffering illnesses or injuries at work that can take a long time to develop," she said.

"People have the basic right to be able to go to work and come home unharmed from carrying out their general day-to-day duties," she added.

Related links:

Read more on the story (The Telegraph)

Asbestos and the law (FindLaw)

Find a personal injury solicitor near you (FindLaw)