Pleural Plaques Protest
On Monday morning (June 25, 2007), a rally was held in Committee Room 10 of the House of Commons to highlight the case due to start in the House of Lords at 11 a.m. which will decide, once and for all, whether pleural plaques are a compensable disease in the UK. The meeting, convened by the GMB trade union, and supported by other labor organizations, was attended by scores of thermal insulation engineers, welders, fabricators and construction workers from all over the country whose work has brought them into contact with asbestos; all of them are aware what this contact could mean for their health and that of their families.1 The session was opened by GMB Organizer Tom Kelly who introduced speakers including Solicitor Rodney-Nelson Jones and researcher Dr. Linda Waldman who addressed the legal and social ramifications of the case.
Nelson-Jones pointed out that Judges fail to understand why those with pleural plaques might seek to claim final damages, an option the judiciary frowns upon. Prominent among the twelve reasons for doing so which the solicitor listed were the following:
By recovering a worthwhile sum in final damages, typically around £17,500, claimants were able to derive benefit from the damages during their lifetime. This is particularly important in an industry such as thermal insulation where few if any employers provide pensions, so the final damages could provide a lump sum for retirement
If and when claimants eventually contract lung cancer or mesothelioma, more often than not the final damages only become available after their death or when they are too terminally ill for the damages to benefit them. Since legal proceedings are stressful, most claimants prefer to finalise their cases so as to avoid future strain especially that falling on widows in the event of their deaths.
As has been spectacularly demonstrated by the insolvency of the Turner & Newall companies, even the largest defendants cannot be relied upon to remain solvent for the few decades in which further damages may be claimed Some insurance companies become insolvent as well, eg. the Builders Accident and the Iron Trades in recent years, in which event only 90% of the further damages can be recovered under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme in respect of asbestos exposure before 1972.2
Dr Waldman, who has researched the impact deadly asbestos exposures have had on communities in South Africa and the UK, said:
The laggers are fighting for recognition of pleural plaque and its effects on men in the construction industry. This is about the acknowledgement of the laggers' experience, about the recognition that pleural plaques are 'real' and have immediate ramifications. The fight against the medical and legal systems can also be viewed as a metaphor for a certain way of life. It is about the survival of people who have old industrial diseases, about men whose lives are at an end, who are part of the old English working class. Ultimately, the fight is a metaphor for a dying way of life.
A legal decision, based on 'scientific medical evidence' that pleural plaques are benign and that sufferers cannot sue for compensation removes the final opportunity laggers have to claim some money while still alive in order to provide for their families and for themselves personally; and in so doing to fulfill their role as men. The failure to litigate while still relatively healthy and to be able to invest compensation in ways that allow laggers to feel confident that their families are provided for, increases rather than reduces their stress as they struggle to maintain their identity and role as men, laggers and providers.3
After the meeting was concluded, delegates adjourned to the square facing the House of Lords. With their GMB placards raised high, they alerted passers-by to the significance of the day's events; with drivers beeping their support, it was a good-humored gathering. After all, as they had been told by Nelson-Jones, over 20 years more than 20 Judges had awarded damages for pleural plaques and the House of Lords has consistently been more liberal than the Court of Appeal. There was reason to be hopeful that the House of Lords would, once again, do the right thing for British working men and women.
The hearing is expected to last 5 days and judgment will be reserved. The general consensus is that the judgment will not be announced until the Autumn.
June 26, 2007