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Issue #1476      13 October 2010

Ultimate insult for asbestos sufferers

Asbestos sufferers were left reeling by a Court of Appeal ruling last week which could allow insurers to exploit a legal loophole to deny compensation to thousands of terminally ill victims. The decision reverses a 2008 High Court ruling that employers’ insurers at the time of exposure to the lethal substance were liable to pay out on work-related mesothelioma claims.

Insurers appealed against the decision and Court of Appeal judges ruled that in certain cases the responsibility lay with the employers’ insurers only at the onset of symptoms, which can be 40 to 50 years after initial exposure.

The original High Court hearing examined a number of cases where insurers refused to pay out. They included that of Charles O’Farrell who died in 2003 after being exposed to asbestos while working as a steel erector for Humphreys & Glasgow, which was insured at the time by Excess Insurance Company, in the 1960s. The employer ceased trading in 1992.

Excess Insurance argued that it was not liable to pay out because, according to the wording of their policy, employees had to “sustain injury” at the time they were working for the employer. The Court of Appeal decided that Mr O’Farrell had not “sustained injury” until he developed mesothelioma years later.

Mr O’Farrell’s daughter Maureen Edwards condemned the ruling. “My dad died a painful death from mesothelioma. Watching him suffer was agonising for all of his family,” she said.

In effect the ruling opens the door for insurers to revisit their initial policies and scour the small print for get-out clauses, not just in mesothelioma cases but those involving any other form of “latent” disease.

“This decision means some insurers are required to pay while others are not, depending on words such as “injury sustained” or “disease contracted” used in insurance contracts written decades ago.

Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum chairman Tony Whitston said: “Thousands of dying asbestos victims will lose compensation and all will live their last days in uncertainty. As a last resort, the government must overturn any judgment which upholds the Court of Appeal decision.”

Trade union leaders also expressed their disgust at the attitude of the insurers and the court’s ruling.

Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson said: “This is the ultimate insult for people suffering or who have watched a loved one suffer a painful and degrading death from industrial disease.

“Insurers banking premiums and then escaping paying out compensation by relying on policy small print is obscene.”

It is anticipated that the case will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Morning Star, Britain’s daily socialist newspaper.  

Next article – World day for decent work

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