Legal Victory in New Zealand
On October 19, 2006, the New Zealand Court of Appeal found in favour of 3 asbestos widows when it reversed a High Court decision which had ruled that the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) had incorrectly paid compensation to claimants whose asbestos exposure had occurred prior to April 2002. It is believed that up to 30 other families could benefit from this decision in the short term and many others in the long term. Papers released by the ACC under the Official Information Act in 2005 said that up to 270 asbestos-related claims worth $150 million could be submitted over the next 10 years. Medical experts in new Zealand have said that the total number of asbestos victims has continually been underestimated.1
This was the final battle in a legal action which had begun in 2004 when Wellington District Court awarded a lump sum to the family of Ross Lehmann, who had died from an asbestos illness in 2003; the High Court subsequently overturned that decision. Although widow Dawn Lehmann was unable to take further legal action to fight for the compensation to which she was entitled, asbestos widows Doris Priddle, Lyn Soeters and Juanita Angell initiated legal proceedings to overturn the High Court's decision.
Vic Angell, a building worker, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in early 2004; he died exactly one year before the Appeal Court's pro-claimants ruling. His wife was appalled by the stress the compensation battle put on the family at a time when they were trying to come to terms with Vic's fatal diagnosis and cope with his deteriorating health. She said: He used to get really, really upset about it. ACC did not treat any of us very well. Mr. Angell, who had originally been offered $67 per week by the ACC, was later awarded a 5 year lump sum payment. The couple were adamant that Mr. Angell's injuries should be fully compensated and believed they were entitled to the sum of $100,000. Their determination was rewarded and the ACC paid up. The decision by the High Court meant the money had to be returned. Vic made his wife promise never to return the money: Don't ever give them that money back. Don't pay it back, he instructed his wife.
Representing the successful litigants, Lawyer John Miller was ecstatic at the precedent-setting victory and the impact the decision would have on the lives of so many grieving families:
It means that those people who received lump sums and were told by ACC that they would have to pay them back don't have to pay them back, and those people who got only an independence allowance [of $68 a week] are now entitled to lump sums.
Katrina Ings, the acting chief executive of the ACC regretted the delay the victims had endured and wanted to expedite the resolution of their situation as well as that of others affected by the decision.
The ruling, coming on the first anniversary of Vic Angell's death, must be bittersweet for his family. Reflecting on the irony of the timing, his wife commented: I believe he's up there smiling.
October 20, 2006
1 Mike Houlahan. Widows' win paves way for big payouts. October 20, 2006.
Nikki Macdonald. Asbestos win may cost ACC millions. October 20, 2006. http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/print/0,1478,3833962a6000,00.html