Families of workers who contracted cancer after working with asbestos have vowed to fight for a change in the law after the House of Lords ruled that employers’ liability for compensation should be restricted.
Last week’s judgment means compensation payouts to sufferers of the fatal lung disease mesothelioma – which kills 1,900 people every year in the UK – and their families, will be drastically reduced in many cases. The move could save millions of pounds for employers.
The House of Lords upheld three test appeals in which it was argued that damages awards should be limited in cases where the employee in question had worked for several employers, none of which could be specifically blamed for the onset of the disease.
Tony Whitston, chairman of the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group, slammed the decision. He claimed that many employers were more worried about cutting costs than workers’ health.
“It’s all about money – justice has been the victim of an incessant pursuit by insurers and employers to reduce the money they have to pay,”
he told Personnel Today. “Because of this judgment, cases will be much longer and more costly.”
Tom Brennan, GMB regional secretary, said the union would back a call for the government to introduce legislation “so that our members and dependants get the compensation they deserve”.
Nick Starling, director of general insurance at the Association of British Insurers, whose members stand to benefit from the ruling, said: “This is a very detailed and complex judgment, and the industry will study it carefully to examine the implications for claimants and insurers.
“Our overriding commitment is to ensure that claimants receive the compensation to which they are entitled.”
The cases in the appeal were Barker v St Gobain Pipelines, Murray v British Shipbuilders and Patterson v Smiths Dock.
Four years ago, in a similar claim, the Law Lords ruled that an employer who negligently exposed a worker to asbestos could be held 100% liable, even if the employee had worked for several companies, and it could not be proved which of them had caused the illness. But in this appeal, it was contended that an employer’s liability should be limited on a percentage basis to reflect the extent to which it contributed to an employee’s exposure to asbestos.