Sufferers of asbestos disease (mesothelioma) are now eligible for a lump sum payment under the compensation scheme for victims of respiratory industrial diseases, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has announced.
The decision is an interim package for mesothelioma sufferers and is in response to the Court of Appeal’s controversial decision in Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd and others and other appeals  All ER (D) 125 (Dec) – known as the “Fairchild judgment”. The court ruled that a worker exposed to asbestos dust could not be awarded damages where he had been employed by more than one employer, unless he could show which employer was responsible for the exposure causing the illness. The court held that this was because mesothelioma was triggered on a single unidentifiable occasion. The decision, which is under appeal and will be heard by the House of Lords in April, effectively prevents asbestos victims who worked for more than one employer from seeking compensation through the courts.
The Pneumoconiosis (Workers’ Compensation) scheme covers respiratory disease caused by dust and operates as a “safety net” for people unable to sue their employer. Under the scheme, qualifying employees are entitled to a one-off lump sum payment ranging from £2,068 – £58,718 depending on circumstances.
Stephen Byers said: “This is a terrible disease and it would be wrong for employees, former employees and their families to be left without help as a result of this court judgment. “The Government is also looking at what “further action might be taken the longer term in response to the Fairchild judgment”, he said.
Although lawyers and trade unions have welcomed the interim measure, they have emphasised that it should not be seen as a final solution. Describing the Court of Appeal judgment as a “licence for organisations negligently to expose people to deadly asbestos fibres and get away with it, “the President of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), Frances McCarthy, said that the “fairest solution” would be for the “House of Lords to overturn the Court of Appeal judgment which created the problem in the first place”.
John Monks, TUC Secretary General, said that “the TUC believes that the House of Lords should restore sanity to asbestos compensation and ensure that it is the polluter – not the tax payer – who pays.
Nigel Bryson, the Director of Health and Safety at Britain’s General Union (GMB), commented: “the GMB does not think it right that tax payers should have to pay compensation on behalf of employers who have negligently exposed their workforce to lethal asbestos dust”. He also said that the levels of compensation available were “far too low”.
It is currently estimated that there are 1,500 mesothelioma cases a year following exposure to asbestos, and that 4,000 people died from asbestos-related cancer last year alone.
“New Law Journal” 22nd February 2002