Thousands of workers who have been exposed to asbestos had their hopes of receiving compensation dashed yesterday, as the Court of Appeal overturned a ruling which had forced insurers to meet claims from those who develop "pleural plaques" on their lungs.
The landmark ruling is a boost for Britain's insurance industry, which could have faced claims totalling £1bn if the court had upheld last year's preliminary test-case judgment.
Medical evidence has shown the development of pleural plaques - a small hardening on the side of the lung - does not have any detrimental effect on health, unlike other asbestos-related conditions, some of which can be fatal.
However, the original ruling had said compensation payments should still be made to those found to have pleural plaques, because of the psychological damage caused by the fear of contracting a worse asbestos-related illness.
Delivering his judgment on eight test cases yesterday, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips said: "The fact that negligence has produced a psychological change that is neither visible nor symptomatic, and which in no way impairs the bodily functions should not attract legal liability."
Adrian Budgen, the head of the asbestos diseases litigation unit at Irwin Mitchell, which is representing more than 200 sufferers, said: "Today's ruling is terrible news for pleural plaque sufferers. The condition is a marker of unprotected exposure to asbestos, almost always a direct result of negligence on the part of claimants' employers."
But insurers said the judgment was fair, helping stem the unhealthy growth of the compensation culture in the UK. Steve Thomas, the technical claims manager at Zurich, one of the insurers involved in the test case, said: "The courts have sent 'claims farmers' a clear message. By encouraging those exposed to asbestos to have scans to see whether they have pleural plaques for the purpose of bringing a claim, they are fuelling the compensation culture and causing people stress and worry where there was none."
Dominic Clayden, of Norwich Union, another of the insurers that was involved, added: "The issue of compensating claimants with serious asbestos-related conditions or who suffer from impairment as a result of exposure to asbestos has never been in question and they will continue to receive compensation."
Brett Taylor, 81: 'It's not about money, it's the worry'
Brett Taylor, 81, looked after the building maintenance at the now-closed Batchelor Foods factory in Wadsley Bridge, Sheffield for 26 years.
"I would cut asbestos sheets for fixing the factory roof and I would work on the boilers by putting asbestos rope around the rim of them as insulation. It was half an inch thick this rope and I would go collect it from stores and loop it around my neck to carry it back to the boilers," Mr Taylor said.
Mr Taylor, of Birley Carr, Sheffield, also spent his last few years at the firm as shop steward and, during this stint, he approached the company safety officer about supplying maintenance staff with full-face helmets.
"It hadn't entered my head about asbestos, but we just had these cotton masks that let the dust in and weren't any good."
But his request was refused because of costs and Mr Taylor took early retirement at the age of 59.
It was not until years later that Mr Taylor discovered he had pleural plaques. The diagnosis came in October 2001 after Mr Taylor underwent a pulmonoscopy at his local hospital.
Mr Taylor said he was disappointed with the latest court decision, but insists it is not "all about the money". "I'm rather gutted about the ruling and it's not necessarily about the money, but we should be recognised.
"It's rather stressful and upsetting when you are told you have an asbestos-related condition.
"Although I'm in my eighties, I worry about the future and what could arise from the pleural plaques.
"I hadn't spent the compensation money in my head, or at all. I'm not that sort of person, but I have a disabled wife at home and any money I get - or would have got - would have gone towards helping me care for my wife."
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