As Esso pays £300,000 to one family, a campaign to change the law could see more former workers eligible for compensation.
Nestle, the world’s biggest food company, and Esso, the energy giant, are among a group of companies facing millions of pounds of legal claims from former workers who allege that they have contracted diseases from exposure to asbestos.
A British court last week ordered Esso to pay £300,000 to a widow who lost her husband to asbestos-related cancer. Nestlé is facing a similar legal challenge.
The legal actions come as a private members’ bill to help victims of asbestos-related conditions is introduced in the House of Lords. The GMB trade union will also lobby parliament on Wednesday in a bid to force the Government to overhaul compensation regulations for sufferers of pleural plaques, an asbestos-related condition.
Pleural plaques sufferers are currently ineligible for compensation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland following a legal ruling in October 2007, but pressure is building for the law to be overturned. Trade unions believe insurance companies could face claims of up to £1.4bn if the law is overhauled and the insurance industry has lobbied hard against any change.
The case against Nestlé has been brought by Elaine Otway, the daughter of Robert Otway who died from mesothelioma, an acute asbestos disease, in September 2006. Ms Otway and her family are seeking up to £150,000 in compensation in what experts believe could be the first of a series of claims related to asbestos conditions.
In a separate case, Esso Petroleum Company was last week ordered to pay £300,000 to the widow of Michael Streets, a former worker at the Fawley oil refinery in Hampshire.
Mr Streets died in December 2007 from mesothelioma, more than 40 years after he worked at the refinery, and in a statement before he died spoke of workers at the site staging “snowball fights” with lumps of wet asbestos.
Solicitors at Boyes Turner, which is handling both cases, expect other claims to be brought against Esso.
The private members’ bill was introduced by Labour MP Andrew Dismore. It passed through the House of Commons earlier this month and will be brought before the House of Lords this week.
Mr Dismore, who admitted that the bill had moved through the House of Commons a great deal faster than he had expected, said: “The question now is whether we can get it through the Lords in the next three weeks, before the session ends.”
Mr Dismore also hit out at insurance industry calls for the law to be upheld.
“The insurers took the premiums. They’ve had a windfall if there is no compensation scheme.”
Efforts to force the bill through should be bolstered as the GMB holds its third lobby of Parliament on the issue this week, and is calling on the Government to change the law whether the bill succeeds or not.
Steve Kemp, national political officer at the GMB, said: “We will be reminding the Government and indeed, the country, of those people who have contracted pleural plaques. It affects thousands of people throughout the UK. We want to put pressure on the Government to reach a conclusion. A decision needs to be made and it needs to be made quickly.”
The 2007 ruling was overturned in Scotland in March this year and a similar reversal is expected in Northern Ireland.
The Government held a review of the ruling in the second half of last year but has yet to comment publicly on its findings, despite saying it would on several occasions.
A decision to overturn the ruling would have a major impact on the insurance industry, which has argued strongly for the law to be retained.
Mr Kemp believes that only with a ruling in favour of pleural plaques victims will justice be done.
“There are hundreds of companies out there that have gone to ground and literally got away with murder. Many companies have simply disappeared and the insurers can no longer find them,” he said”
Nestle refused to comment on the case of Mr Otway.
Esso could not be reached for comment.
A life cut short
Robert Otway was 70 when he died. Previously a fit man who would walk for miles around his home city of Norwich, he was left housebound after contracting mesothelioma.
“I thought he would be around for a long while because he was so fit and it came as a big shock when he died,” said Elaine Otway, Robert’s daughter. “When he was struck down with the illness he was confined to his flat because of shortness of breath. He was a patient and strong man but it is a very painful disease which affects all of your nerves. He was angry about how he contracted the condition.”
Mr Otway worked on the Rolo line of a Nestlé factory in Chaplefield, Norwich, in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time his family claims he was exposed to a “foreseeably harmful level of asbestos”.
The lawsuit claims “little or no preventative measures were taken” against asbestos exposure and estimates Mr Otway would have lived 11 more years if he had not contracted mesothelioma.
The family hopes to recover up to £150,000. “It is the principle of the matter – the money isn’t anything to me,” she said. “We want to bring the problem into the open for others who might be affected.”
Nestlé declined to comment.