Supreme Court rules employers’ insurers should pay compensation to victims

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Unite has won a landmark court ruling that paves the way for victims of asbestos-related injury to seek compensation.

Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court, which upheld Unite’s appeal and rejected arguments by insurance companies, will affect many of the 2,500 people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.

Judges in the country’s highest court agreed with Unite that the insurers of an employer at the time of the exposure to asbestos should pay compensation.

Unite appealed to the Supreme Court after insurance companies were partly successful in an earlier appeal to the Court of Appeal. The companies argued that in some cases the employers’ liability insurance is ‘triggered’ not by the exposure to asbestos but by the development of the disease which is always decades later when there is no insurance in place to respond to the claim.

In his judgment, Lord Clarke concluded that: “The whole purpose of these policies was to insure employers against liability to their employees. That purpose would be frustrated if the insurers’ submissions on this point were accepted.”

Lord Phillips added that diseases are contracted when the process that leads to them is initiated as a result of wrongful exposure to the noxious substance that causes the disease.

The judgment went on to emphasise that these principles apply not only to mesothelioma but also to other industrial diseases.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “This is a landmark ruling which will affect thousands of victims of asbestos. It is a disgrace that insurance companies went to such lengths to shirk their responsibilities. For callous insurers this means the responsibility holiday is over. Unite fought this case to the highest court to get justice for Charles, his family and all victims of asbestos. Justice for ordinary people and the ability of trade unions to bring these cases won’t be possible if the government succeeds in slamming the door to justice with their Legal Aid Bill.”

Unite’s appeal was on behalf of the family of Charles O’Farrell, a retired member who died of mesothelioma in 2003. His daughter, Maureen Edwards said: “All I ever prayed for was the right decision. This is the right decision. I am delighted for all those families who have been awaiting this result.

“My dad worked all his life and was hoping to enjoy retirement before mesothelioma took him away. There was never any question about who was to blame, all this long battle was about was insurers wanting to get out of paying. It is very difficult for us to understand the insurance industry’s attitude to dying people, an attitude that the government is going to make worse.”

Howard Beckett, Unite’s director of legal affairs added:“Unite has once again shown the commitment to the health and safety of our members. Unite can support cases like these under current access to justice laws which allow Unite to self insure against the defendants costs. In this case the costs would have amounted to £1.5 million if we had lost. The Government’s proposed changes to the legal system will make it harder and harder to pursue cases such as these and deny ordinary people access to justice.”

Unite would like to offer its gratitude to the work of Thompsons Solicitors and Colin Wynter QC of Devereux Chambers who represented our member with skill and commitment.


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