High Court Delves into Social History to Resolve Widow’s Asbestos Claim


Many people are still being carried off by merciless cancer due to asbestos exposure in the dim and distant past. As a High Court ruling showed, it is the very passage of time that makes it so hard for their loved ones to obtain compensation.

The case concerned a former plasterer who died, aged 72, from mesothelioma – an incurable form of cancer that commonly takes decades to develop and can be caused by breathing in a single asbestos fibre. His widow launched a personal injury claim against a company for which he worked in the mid- to late 1970s.

Ruling on the matter, the Court observed that the case involved delving back into a period of social history when vast numbers of low-cost homes were being built so that inner-city dwellers could move away from old and decrepit housing stock. The man’s role was to erect plasterboards in newly constructed homes.

In dismissing the widow’s claim, the Court noted that the relevant events took place more than 40 years ago. On the evidence, she had failed to establish her case that, when it rained, carpenters came indoors – where her husband was working – to cut up boards that were used to make rooves watertight. It had also not been proved that it was more likely than not that the boards contained asbestos.

The Court noted that asbestos is cheap, versatile and strong, but can also be lethal. It was undoubtedly used in many of the huge residential construction projects of the time. The man was certainly exposed to asbestos at some point in his working life, but it had not been shown that it was whilst he was working for the company.

The case highlighted the intense fragility of life. The man was a fighter and his wife was devastated when he lost his terrible struggle against cancer. The rejection of her claim would seem to her a further insult. In seeking to discern where the truth lay, however, the Court was required to put sympathy and compassion to one side.

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