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Asbestos Case Raises Issues

Richardson v G F Russell (Queens Bench Division 6th August 2008)

The deceased died of mesothelioma. He worked as a Plumber and Heating Engineer for the defendant company between 1975 and 1987. The issues were whether or not the deceased had been exposed to asbestos by the defendant as alleged, and if so, if that exposure was in breach of duty and made a material contribution to the cause of the disease.

The deceased had not provided a witness statement, but his son and wife gave evidence that, upon diagnosis, he told them that he had been exposed to asbestos by three employers including the Defendant. Exposure occurred when the deceased installed central heating: he ripped out asbestos lagged pipes and boilers; chipped of lagging to perform maintenance; removed asbestos based bath panels; and swept up asbestos waste. Prior to diagnosis, he expressed concern when watching TV programmes about asbestos on account of his past work.

At trial, the Defendant disputed exposure, except for the very occasional cutting of flue pipes, while evidence from a Consultant Engineer supported that denial.

The judge found that the claimants witnesses to be straight forward and honest. The defendants witnesses were found to be defensive and in denial about asbestos exposure at work. The exposure was significant, so could not be considered to be de minimis. The claimants evidence on date of knowledge was unhesitatingly accepted and exposure occurred negligently.

Comment

This case reflects the difficulties that defendants face when seeking to deny asbestos exposure in occupations where asbestos was historically common place. It is consistent with the trend seen in Cox v Rolls Royce Industrial Power (India) 2007, where the deceased gave a generic description of work in power stations rather than specifically alleging exposure with a named employer though the ort was entitle to find that significant exposure had occurred.