Passive smoking claim makes history

Former worker at old folks' home blames polluted atmosphere for onset of asthma in case that could set legal precedent
A NURSE claiming damages over passive smoking in the first case of its kind told a court yesterday how she was left breathless and wheezing by the atmosphere in which she was forced to work.

Sylvia Sparrow, aged 60, claims she was left with asthma and severe chest problems after three years of working in the Worsley Lodge elderly people's home in Swinton, Greater Manchester.

Mrs Sparrow told the High Court in Manchester she had worked in an area of the home that at least five residents had adopted as a "smokers' corner". She said: "I started experiencing a sore throat. By the time I came off my shift I could hardly speak. Going in on a morning I used to feel sick and I didn't know how I would get through the shift. I used to battle on, but it got so I couldn't go on. The thought of getting through the day was so stressful and I used to experience coughing."

Mrs Sparrow, a State Enrolled Nurse, of Swinton, is claiming an undisclosed amount for injury and loss of earnings from St Andrew's Homes Ltd, which ran Worsley Lodge. The home is now under new ownership.

It is the first time a passive smoking case has come before the courts in England and Wales and the outcome could set a legal precedent.

Mrs Sparrow's action, being funded by the Royal College of Nursing, alleges that the company failed to provide a safe environment for her to work.

Her counsel, Alan Rawley QC, told Mr Justice Holland: "They should have provided a smoking room in which she need not have gone. There are smoking rooms in many institutions and non-smoking compartments on railway trains. It is not beyond the wit of man to devise a system which would keep her away from smoking, particularly once she had given notice of her disabilities."

Mr Rawley said that it was a "moot point" whether passive smoking could cause asthma in an adult.

But doctors had diagnosed Mrs Sparrow as probably predisposed to the disease, which remained symptomless until she was exposed to the irritant of smoke in her work.

Mrs Sparrow worked part time at the home, which had 72 elderly residents, from 1986. Her symptoms started in 1989, when her GP diagnosed her problems as being caused by tobacco fumes.

Mrs Sparrow said she had asked to be moved from the "green lounge" area of the home where residents regularly smoked, but after a period elsewhere was told she had to move back there permanently. In February 1992, she was signed off sick for six months and never returned.

Mrs Sparrow agreed that a doctor had later assessed the long-term effects on her health as minor and a tribunal had fixed the extent of her disability as 5 per cent.

She denied she had suggested the whole of the home should be made smoke- free or that she had exaggerated the extent of her condition. She had not left to look for another job earlier because she liked working at the home, she said.

She said a suggestion that she could have avoided the area where there was smoke was very unfair. "It was my duty to be in that area. I would not leave the patients."

There was constant smoking in the area and two of the residents would have 600 cigarettes each brought in by relatives each month. "Others didn't smoke to that extreme but they did smoke," said Mrs Sparrow. "As soon as they had their breakfast they would light up. They were constantly lighting up. It was their chatting corner and their smoking corner."

The hearing continues today.