French Supreme Court Supports Asbestos Victims
On 28 February, 2002, the French Supreme Court upheld verdicts of "faute inexcusable" (variously translated as inexcusable fault or inexcusable negligence)1 in a series of cases brought by asbestos victims.2 This is a resounding victory for asbestos claimants, the National Asbestos Victims’ Group (ANDEVA3) and the French solicitors who have worked closely with them over the last five years. According to ANDEVA: "After 50 years of lies, the companies which manufactured and processed asbestos have finally been brought to justice and asbestos victims have received the judicial recognition and compensation they deserve." The defendants in these cases included many companies linked to asbestos multinationals: Eternit (part of the Belgian-owned Etex Group), Everite (Saint Gobain), S. A. Valeo (the company which took over Ferodo Ltd., previously a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UK Turner & Newall Group) and Sollac (Usinor).
Jean-Philippe Thierry, Chairman of Assurances Generales de France, estimates that the ruling could cost French insurers US$6.68 billion (£4.74 bn/Euro 7.62 bn) over twenty years. According to one newspaper report, Thierry warned that disputes between insurers and their insured (the employers) are inevitable: insurance policies written before 1987 excluded cover for inexcusable fault. Thierry criticised the Supreme Court which, he said, extended the law into new realms by widening the definition of inexcusable fault: "it is a modification fundamental in doctrine."
During the 20th century, France was one of the biggest consumers of asbestos. In June, 1996 a report: Effects on Health of the Main Types of Exposure to Asbestos predicted that the French mortality rate from asbestos-related diseases would exceed 1900 in 1996, most of the fatalities stemming from occupational exposure. French insurers are worried that this judgement could result in a flood of claims. They are right to be worried. If only one thing has been learned from the explosion of US asbestos claims, it is this: asbestos victims and their families are no longer willing to shoulder the burden of employers’ misdeeds. The mobilisation of asbestos cases from shipyard exposures has already begun. Three former employees of the shipyard Chantiers de l’Atlantique won asbestos cases last year. The year before, legal actions brought on behalf of four employees of the Normed shipyard at La Seyne succeeded at the Aix en Provence Appeal Court. Several hundred additional claims are expected from each of these workplaces.
March 11, 2002
1 Some of the judgments can be found at: