In February 2010, the government reached its long awaited decision on whether to award those with pleural plaques compensation. It concluded that this would no longer be paid.
Pleural plaques are small localised areas of fibrosis found within the pleura of the lung caused by asbestos exposure. It has been argued by medical experts that they do not usually cause significant symptoms (if any) and do not impair lung function. Defendant insurers have argued through the court process that those who have pleural plaques could therefore not have suffered any damage as a result of being diagnosed but rather merely have evidence to confirm that they have been exposed to asbestos in the past.
For a number of years people with pleural plaques have been in limbo, not knowing if they will ever be able to pursue a claim for compensation.
Medical evidence has shown that the presence of pleural plaques does serve as an indicator that someone has been exposed to asbestos. While it is accepted that asbestos exposure does increase a person’s risk of developing a serious illness, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and/or asbestos related lung cancer, and that being diagnosed with pleural plaques can cause anxiety for the sufferer, pleural plaques do not generally cause symptoms or loss of lung function. This formed the basis of the government’s decision to refuse to award those with pleural plaques compensation.
As yet, there is no medical evidence to suggest that pleural plaques can become malignant or develop into a more serious condition, such as mesothelioma. It is the individual’s exposure to asbestos which poses the risk rather than plaques themselves.
In light of the stress and worry that a diagnosis of pleural plaques can cause, the Chief Medical Officer has invited the British Lung Foundation and the British Thoracic Society to develop information materials about pleural plaques, for both health care professionals and patients. This will then ensure that information provided is accurate and consistent and will hopefully assist in allaying any concerns about the condition.
When the initial Law Lords’ ruling was made in October of 2007, there were a number of individuals who had already begun their compensation claim for pleural plaques. For these people, the government has provided an extra-statutory scheme in which payments of £5,000 will be made to the Claimants. This amount reflects the compensation they would have likely received had pleural plaques remained a compensatable condition. The scheme applies across England and Wales and full details will be announced in the near future.
However, new legislation could reverse the decision. The Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Bill has already passed through Commons and is to be read at the committee stage in Lords this month. The Bill would supercede the ruling made in the Parliament last month.
The decision did not only affect those diagnosed with pleural plaques. The decision also had an impact on mesothelioma claims. In the past, people unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with mesothelioma following a claim for pleural plaques would be able to pursue a claim for mesothelioma quickly as liability would have already been admitted for the previous claim. Settling a claim in a timely manner is especially important when dealing with conditions like mesothelioma. Due to this, the government is taking steps to assist in speeding up the claims process, not only for mesothelioma, but for other serious asbestos related diseases too.
The government will be looking to Claimant Solicitors, trade unions, insurers and Courts for information on ways to make the claims procedure more efficient. They will also be considering changes to the substantive law with regard to difficulties with valuing claims both in life and posthumously and to clarify the limitation period for bringing a claim.
In addition to the above, the government will also be addressing the problem of claimants with serious asbestos related conditions not being able to obtain full compensation due to being unable to trace an insurer. To combat this, they are proposing to set up a UK-wide Employers Liability Tracing Office (ELTO).
Even with the introduction of the ELTO, there will be some individuals who will be unable to trace insurers for their employers. For these cases, the government is proposing setting up an Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau (ELIB). This would be a last resort compensation fund for those unable to trace employer’s liability insurance records.
The details of what the ELIB should cover, how much compensation should be paid and what limitations for claiming should be set, have yet to be confirmed.
The government has stated that in time, the ELTO and ELIB should help to support those suffering from mesothelioma or other serious asbestos related conditions. However, they also recognise that action is needed now and sufferers should not have to wait. In line with this, they are working to increase payments made to mesothelioma sufferers and their dependants. Payments under the Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 will increase by 1.5% and payments due to mesothelioma under the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 will also increase. The regulations are also being changed to allow 1979 Act payments to dependents to be higher, and so closer to what the sufferer would have received during lifetime.
The UK has one of the highest rates of death in the world due to mesothelioma. Due to this, the government are determined to expand research into asbestos related conditions.