French Supreme Court Hears Asbestos Claims
On 28 February, 2002, the French Supreme Court is expected to hand down its ruling on a group of asbestos cases brought by victims of occupational exposure. On 18 January, 2002, three hundred supporters of ANDEVA1, the national group representing French asbestos victims, gathered outside the Palace of Justice, the splendid building which houses France’s Supreme Court. The Court was considering the cases of thirty asbestos claimants who alleged that gross negligence (la faute inexcusable2) by their employers had been responsible for their illnesses. The defendants in these cases include many companies which have links with 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). As entry to the Paris courtroom was limited, groups of victims took it in turn to observe the proceedings. At the end of the hearing, the Court announced that the eagerly awaited verdict would be handed down in six weeks.
The Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) is the ultimate venue for judicial disputes not resolved satisfactorily by the lower courts or the courts of appeal. A case will only be considered at this level if the Court feels there is need to investigate whether the law had been correctly applied previously. If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the claimants, the cases end here. If the Court has doubts about the earlier application of the law, the cases are sent back to a Court of Appeal. Some of the cases currently being appealed to the Supreme Court were brought by the companies (Eternit, Everite, Valeo) which are attempting to get previous verdicts of "faute inexcusable" reversed. The Sollac case is an exception: in this instance the Court of Appeal found for the company on the grounds that as it was not an asbestos specialist its actions, prior to 1977, were not negligent.
In 2000, despite the protests of some French asbestos victims, an Indemnisation Fund was set up by the Government. The official position of ANDEVA was to welcome the scheme which, it was hoped, would provide compensation in a relatively short time: under six months. Asbestos victims can apply for compensation but accepting a sum from this source means they give up the right to bring a court case for inexcusable fault. Should they decide to refuse the offer, they can bring a legal action. Unfortunately, as in many other countries, a claim for asbestos damages can take years to work itself through the courts. The majority of the financial backing for this scheme comes from a tax on all employers with "guilty" employers paying the same levels of contribution as "innocent" employers. The rest of the money comes from French taxpayers, who are thus subsidising the negligent behaviour of asbestos defendants. Although legislation to set up the Indemnisation Fund was adopted in 2000, as of 18 February, 2002 no asbestos victims have received compensation.
February 18, 2002
2 A finding of inexcusable fault by civil or criminal courts can more than double the amount of compensation awarded to an asbestos claimant. Dr. Annie Thebaud-Mony, one of the founding members of ANDEVA, reports that some asbestos victims have succeeded in obtaining judgments for 500,000-1 million francs (£46,500-£93,000) when a ruling of inexcusable fault has been obtained.