Tens of thousands of victims of a terminal cancer caused by asbestos were denied compensation by a Court of Appeal judgment yesterday.
The judges admitted that their decision amounted to a "major injustice crying out to be righted" by the Government or by the insurance industry, but refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords.
The ruling confirmed a decision by the High Court that when workers are exposed to lethal asbestos dust by more than one employer they cannot establish where they contracted mesothelioma (cancer caused by exposure to asbestos) and are therefore unable to seek damages.
The court overruled a High Court decision in favour of Edwin Matthews, a mesothelioma sufferer, against Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers (1978) and British Uralite plc. Mr Matthews' lawyer said outside court that the decision meant that a High Court award of £155,000 would be taken from his client. Mr Matthews, 54, from Kent, said: "I feel cheated. This is not really my money as I see it. It was for my family. We are now faced with probably having to sell our house."
After giving their ruling in six linked cases, Lord Justice Brooke, Lord Justice Latham and Lord Justice Kay refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords, although the losing parties could apply directly to the law lords.
Ian McFall of Thompsons, which represents asbestos victims, said the decision was a "devastating blow" to the families of those who had died and to people who were dying. Mr McFall estimated that by 2010, about 10,000 people a year would be dying from the cancer.
The case also affected the treatment of the widow of Arthur Fairchild, who died of mesothelioma in 1996. He was exposed to substantial quantities of asbestos when he worked for Leeds City Council in the early 1960s, but he was also exposed to the fibres six years later when he worked at another job in Leeds. The High Court ruled that his widow, Judith, could not prove which employer Mr Fairchild was working for when he contracted the illness, a decision which was upheld yesterday.
Hundreds of compensation claims had been waiting for the Court of Appeal's decision. Mr McFall said the ruling "means that companies can admit that they have negligently exposed workers – who then develop mesothelioma – to asbestos, yet they can now walk away without having to pay a penny in compensation".
He urged the House of Lords to "unravel this mess" so that compensation could be paid.