Shameful Decision by UK Law Lords
On May 3, 2006, the Law Lords, the highest court in the UK, reversed long established precedents by issuing a pro-defendants' verdict which could deprive thousands of UK asbestos victims of billions of pounds of compensation in the coming decades.1
The judgment apportions liability for mesothelioma, a disease previously considered indivisible. This means that widows Sylvia Barker and Mary Murray will receive a fraction of the compensation they had previously been awarded by the lower courts for the asbestos deaths of their husbands. Furthermore, the decision will compromise compensation for thousands more asbestos victims, people whose illnesses stem from negligent exposures by UK companies, companies which will now only have to pay a pittance for killing those who worked for them.2 In the short term, the ruling will:
depress many asbestos victims, family members, claimants, legal representatives and campaigners;
force many victims to reconsider the advisability of legal action ;
lead to protracted litigation and increased costs;
encourage insurers to reassess the commercial wisdom of issuing insurance cover for mesothelioma cases.
In the longer-term, the decision will make asbestos victims, campaigners, trade unionists, politicians and concerned citizens more determined then ever to seek alternative means to obtain justice for UK asbestos victims.
Paula Walker from the Sheffield and Rotherham Asbestos Group says:
"This is nothing more than a cost saving exercise by employers and their insurance companies. It sends out the completely wrong message that companies are not wholly to blame for bad working practices that kill... This decision will have a massive impact on the quality of life of people suffering from the most horrifying symptoms, whose only crime was breathing the air at their place of work."
Coming within weeks of an Appeal Court decision which also overturned precedents by finding that no compensation should be paid to those with pleural plaques, it is hard not to believe that what is going on is part and parcel of an overall strategy to protect UK business from the claims of those who have suffered at its hands.
May 8, 2006
1 The BBC reported that this ruling could cost UK asbestos victims up to £15 million pounds a year; most people I have spoken to feel that this is a huge underestimate. A journalist writing about the impact of this ruling on Scots widows and families claimed that the Law Lords decision could cut some compensation payouts by up to 90%.
2Barker v Corus, weblink: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200506/ldjudgmt/jd060503/barker-1.htm