Families of thousands of workers who have died or suffer from asbestos-related cancers finally won their landmark fight for compensation at the Supreme Court today.
Judges ruled that insurance liability was “triggered” when employees were exposed to asbestos dust - and not later, when symptoms of mesothelioma emerged.
Lawyers said that the ruling by the UK’s highest court would mean employers’ insurers must now pay huge compensation bills for policies dating from the late 1940s to late 1990s – which had been put on hold waiting for today’s ruling.
Families started a legal fight for compensation more than five years ago and lawyers say the Supreme Court ruling could affect thousands of claims.
Relatives won the first round of their battle in 2008, when the High Court said firms' insurers at the time workers inhaled fibres were liable.
But two years later the Court of Appeal said in some cases liability was triggered when symptoms developed - sometimes decades after exposure.
Lawyers said the appeal court ruling had left victims' families facing “confusion and uncertainty”.
A panel of five Supreme Court justices heard argument about a group of lead cases at a hearing in London in December and delivered judgment today.
It ruled that the disease could be said to have been “sustained” by an employee in the period when it was caused or initiated, even though it only developed or manifested itself later.
Lord Clarke said: “The negligent exposure of an employee to asbestos during the policy (insurance) period has a sufficient causal link with subsequently arising mesothelioma to trigger the insurer's obligation.”
The UK’s biggest union, Unite, welcomed today's “landmark” ruling, which it said will affect “many of the 2,500 people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year”.
It said it had appealed to the Supreme Court after insurance companies had been partly successful in the earlier appeal to the Court of Appeal.
Unite's challenge was on behalf of the family of Charles O'Farrell, a retired member who died of mesothelioma in 2003.
Commenting on the Supreme Court's decision, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “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.”
Helen Ashton, the solicitor represening the lead claimant in the case, Ruth Durham, who had continued the legal battle in memory of her father Leslie Screach, said the ruling provided “clarity, consistency and comfort for mesothelioma victims and their families”.
Ms Ashton, of law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: “As well as the people currently directly affected by asbestos related disease, this judgment means that the thousands of people who are yet to be given the devastating news that they have the deadly illness will at least know that their families can get access to justice and receive the financial security they need.
”But the sad fact is that many victims of mesothelioma who have been awaiting the outcome of this appeal may not have lived long enough to know if their families will now receive the compensation they deserve.“
She commented: ”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.”
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) said the judgment provided ”clarity and certainty“.
”The ABI and our members are committed to paying compensation as quickly as possible to people with mesothelioma who have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace,“ said Nick Starling, the ABI's director of general insurance and health.
”We have always opposed the attempt to change the basis on which mesothelioma claims should be paid, as argued by those who brought this litigation.
“Today's ruling by the Supreme Court has confirmed what most in the industry have always understood - that the insurer on cover when the claimant was exposed to asbestos should pay the claim, rather than the insurer on cover when the mesothelioma develops.”
Municipal Mutual Insurance (MMI), one of four insurance firms which featured in the litigation, said it had ”sought resolution“ of the issue in order to provide ”greater certainty“.
”Whilst the ruling does not reflect MMI's favoured outcome, we welcome the clarity this judgment brings as it enables MMI to determine the extent of its liabilities and the available options for the future of MMI and its business,“ said a spokeswoman.
But Susan Brown, Director at law firm Prolegal warned that many asbestos victims would still go uncompensated.
“It is important to remember that there are still many victims left uncompensated, either because they cannot identify when or where they were exposed to asbestos, or because their former employers are no longer trading and the insurers cannot be identified. There remains a pressing need for provision, in the form of an EL (employers liability) “fund of last resort” to be put in place to compensate these victims and their families. The government have suggested that legislation on this would follow the conclusion of the “trigger” litigation, and it is to be hoped that they will now move quickly on this.”
Case study: 'I miss Dad every day. Money won't bring him back'
Leslie Screach died in 2003 after being exposed to asbestos fibres between 1963 and 1968 while working as a paint sprayer in west London. His daughter Ruth Durham continued the legal battle in memory of her father. She said:
"I am delighted to hear of the court's decision, which will now see justice done for my father and the other mesothelioma sufferers. I was determined to see this through with a positive outcome for all those who, like my dad, suffered so terribly because of someone else's negligence. I miss him every day and no sum of money will ever bring him back or make up for what he went through. We had been very close, and really were good friends."