This piece is from the Unite bi-monthly magazine, unite WORKS
It’s terrible enough contracting a killer disease at work. But what happens when some insurance companies want to avoid paying out compensation? Thanks to Unite’s legal intervention their plans to do just that have been wrecked and compensation to victims will again be paid.
Asbestos exposure, mostly at work, is almost entirely to blame for the lung cancer, mesothelioma that has an incubation period of around 35-40 years. Every year around 2,500 people are diagnosed with the disease that kills within 18 months.
Six years ago, four insurance companies – Excess, Independent, Builders Accident and Municipal Mutual – combined resources to argue that employers’ liability insurance cover was ‘triggered’ not by the exposure many decades previously that caused it, but when the symptoms emerged decades later when there is no insurance in place to respond the claim.
With compensation claims often rightly exceeding £100,000 the four companies were clearly hoping to evade their historic responsibilities and boost their bottom line. People before profit? No chance, and their actions held up the legitimate claims - estimated to total anything up to £1 billion – for thousands of people.
The fact that they haven’t destroyed them for good is because Unite employed Thompsons solicitors and Devereux Chambers, both specialists in health and safety law, to support the appeal by the family of Charles O’Farrell, a member who died of mesothelioma shortly after retiring nine years ago.
The insurers had ‘unpicked’ the words in their own insurance policies to convince the court of appeal of their case. However, following an eight-day hearing at the supreme court in December it was announced that Unite’s appeal had been upheld and the insurance companies had to pay compensation.
Daughter Maureen Edwards “delight” was naturally tempered by her dad not having had the time to enjoy his retirement and by needing to wage “such a long battle.”
One, which if it had been lost could have cost Unite £1.5 million. “It was the right thing to do,” says Howard Beckett, Unite’s director of legal affairs, “as otherwise families of mesothelioma sufferers would be unable to make a claim in the future. Our thousands of hours of work proved worthwhile.
But we also know that bad practices that injure workers or expose them to harmful substances are not ended by employers’ goodwill. It’s through trade union organisation and a fear of litigation that drives up insurance costs. Asbestos is the perfect example and now we have in place much safer ways of dealing with it or not using it all.”
Tough for justice
Despite the success the future is a lot less bright for other victims of workplace illnesses and accidents after the Government refused to support amendments, proposed by the House of Lords, to its April Legal Aid Bill.
“Unfortunately in the government’s rush to accuse everybody of being part of the ‘compensation culture’ they have forgotten that those injured or exposed to substances at work have nothing to do with this. We wanted them to make sure those affected remained protected, but they have ignored our pleas, including those made by asbestos victims groups” said Beckett.
As a result, says Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, “justice for ordinary people and the ability of trade unions to bring similar cases will be extremely difficult in the future.”
For more info see www.justice-for-all.org.uk