Thousands of workers who have died, or continue to needlessly suffer, won their protracted battle against unscrupulous insurers at the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Judges ruled that insurance liability started at the point an employee was exposed to asbestos dust, and not later when the symptoms started to develop. Meaning insurers who insured the company at the time of exposure are liable to pay any compensation.
The decision is likely to affect a huge number of on-going claims, and means that insurance companies may have to pay an estimated total of £5billion in compensation.
Victims had started their fight almost five years ago. In 2008 the High Court ruled that liability for insurers started when the workers inhaled the deadly fibres. The Court of Appeal disagreed and found that in some cases liability could be triggered only when the symptoms started to develop.
As a result of the Court of Appeals decision, many were left confused and unsure about their prospects of receiving compensation for their illness. A great deal of uncertainty also manifested itself throughout the legal community, as lawyers were apprehensive about what this meant for their clients.
The reasoning behind the uncertainty is that industrial diseases, such as mesothelioma, can lay dormant for a long period of time, posing legal difficulties for judges and legal representatives.
The highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, decided to end these concerns. Finding unequivocally that the disease was sustained by an employee when it was caused and not when the symptoms started to manifest.
One of the Supreme Court judges, Lord Clarke, said: “The negligent exposure of an employee to asbestos during the [insurance] policy period has a sufficient causal link with subsequently arising mesothelioma to trigger the insurer’s obligation.”
Many of the insurance firms have tried to distance themselves as much as possible from the court proceedings for fear of bad publicity. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) stated that this judgement helped to ‘provide clarity and certainty’.
While this ruling is certainly welcome, there is still more that can be done to help asbestos victims. One of the main difficulties industrial disease solicitors have is tracing when and where the asbestos exposure occurred. After finding this, there is also difficulty if the company is no longer trading, as it will be essential to find the insurers of the company at the time of exposure.
Potentially therefore many victims may find that they are unable to gain the compensation that they deserve, due to the inability to find those who are responsible. This has led for calls of a ‘fund for last resort’ enabling asbestos victims to receive the compensation in all circumstances.