Insurers Mobilize in Australia
Insurers in Australia have joined US and UK colleagues in pressing their respective Governments to reduce asbestos liabilities. While plans for national legislation to regulate asbestos litigation in the US are expected to fail, UK insurers have succeeded in obtaining urgent reviews of the liability insurance market and Employers' Liability Compulsory Insurance regime. In Australia, the insurance industry is pressing for new rules to stop interstate workers bringing compensation claims under the sympathetic rules in New South Wales (NWS). Under present regulations:
"ill workers can make claims to the Dust Diseases Board for weekly pension entitlements and hospital and medical expenses, and separately can bring a claim through the Dust Diseases Tribunal, which has the powers of the Supreme Court to award common law damages... The NSW Attorney General, Bob Debus, is considering tightening a provision, upheld by court practise, that permits claims to be lodged in NSW where it is in the 'interest of justice'."1
While a spokesperson for the Allianz insurance company complained about "unnecessarily high legal fees which eat up workers' settlements," plaintiffs' solicitor Amando Gardiman said:
"Of 500 claims which went through last year, possibly 150 were from interstate...Of those, most were claims on behalf of people who used to live in NSW and had a legitimate right to bring a claim in a NSW court."
In Sydney, the Sunday Morning Herald reported on July 14, 2003 that insurers were seeking "fundamental changes in the longer term" which include a cap on compensation awards and restrictions to the jurisdiction of the Dust Diseases Tribunal. For the insurers, the holy grail is the adoption of a no-fault scheme:
"underpinned by a fund established by insurers and other companies with asbestos liabilities. Payouts would be decided by medical process... The industry is also arguing for some cap on exemplary, punitive or aggravated damages, which can add to payout costs."
Changes to the current system would seriously disadvantage claimants and constitute a "windfall" for insurers according to asbestos victims and their legal representatives.
August 15 , 2003
1 Morris L. Groups Cough at Asbestos Claims Shake-up. The Sunday Morning Herald. July 14, 2003; website: www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/07/13/1058034877739.html