United Kingdom – October 27, 2010 – (WiredPRNews.com) Making a determination on who was responsible for asbestos-related disease claims was simple when, in 2008, the UK High Court ruled that insurors providing coverage to employers at the time claimants were exposed to asbestos were required to pay asbestos disease claims.
That meant that, if you worked for a firm and were exposed to asbestos, you could be certain your claim would be paid by the insurance company covering your company’s operations, if a doctor’s exam confirmed you had an asbestos-related illness, particularly mesothelioma.
Simple, straightforward and reliable, the ruling has been called into question in a more recent ruling by UK appeals court judges, who – arguing in the “Employers’ Liability Insurance Trigger Litigation” test cases in October – are divided on how the exact wording of insurance policies will determine the standard by which settlements are paid.
The change is particularly distressing to victims of mesothelioma and social service advocates representing them, because time is of the essence in adjudicating claims for this disease, which usually comes with a prognosis offering about a year to live. In other words, a disputed claim may not reach the patient until after he or she is dead.
Mesothelioma, a disease of the protective linings around the lungs, heart and abdominal organs, can be contracted by inhaling or ingesting as little as a single fiber of asbestos. Once the fiber lodges inside the body, most commonly around the lungs, the ensuing irritation can lead to lesions and, from there, to tumors.
The process is very slow, sometimes taking up to 50 years from inhalation or ingestion to malignancy, but once the lesion does becomes cancerous, mesothelioma metamorphoses from a mildly irritating set of symptoms with no distinguishing characteristics to a highly aggressive, lethal tumor mass that spreads so rapidly treatments like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – singly or in conjunction – are more palliative than curative. That is, they can be used to relieve pain and improve breathing, but are no means regarded in medical circles as providing a permanent solution.
One of the most distinctive symptoms of asbestos-related disease is pleural plaques, which are areas of fibrous tissue in which embedded asbestos fibers become visible under electron microscopy.
The recent ruling – the result of a split decision in which three judges (Lord Justice Bernard Rix, Lady Justice Janet Smith and Lord Justice Stanley Burnton) dissented regarding which wording triggered policy applicability – means that some employers may discover they don’t have coverage for worker’s claims regarding asbestos-related illnesses even if they have insurance.
It also means that some claimants will find themselves left out in the cold if a former employer declared bankruptcy or was otherwise rendered insolvent. And this is likely to cause mesothelioma victims, their representatives, asbestos-disease organizations, and construction union Ucatt to raise a ruckus over what is being perceived as a lack “fair play” for asbestos disease sufferers – a ruckus that stems primarily from Labour Justice Jack Straw’s determination, in February, to pay only asbestos disease sufferers who had filed claims before the Law Lords 2007 decision to exclude pleural plaques from compensation.
Under the newest ruling, the issue of whether a policy can be tapped to pay a claim resides in the use of the words “contracted” or “sustained” – a seemingly picayune distinction that apparently delineates when a claimant first develops an asbestos-related illness like mesothelioma, and when the illness becomes cancerous.
The distinction, made by Lord Justice Rix, devolves around the 1969 Employer’s Liability Compulsory Insurance Act, with the word “contracted” suggesting an initiation of a disease process related to asbestos inhalation or ingestion, while “sustained” applies to the full-fledged development of an illness.
The ruling is likely to proceed to the UK’s Supreme Court, where Zurich Insurance Co. Ltd. has said it plans to appeal the ruling. With two other judges differing on their interpretation of the meanings behind the words, and many of the insurers insolvent, the lack of certainty has been described as a “black hole” affecting not just asbestos-disease sufferers but extant businesses and local government as well.
For more information, please visit our website at www.mesotheliomaweb.org.