Pleural plaques – a thickening of the inner surface of the lung linings – is an asbestos-related condition, which continues to be a cause for concern among victims and their families. Many feel their entitlement to asbestos compensation is unfairly denied because the physical symptoms are benign. However, damages of £10,000 were recently awarded to the widow of a deceased victim for the stress and anxiety caused to her husband who developed the condition.

The view of the courts in England and Wales that pleural plaques could not be satisfactorily characterised as a “disease” or as an “impairment of physical condition” has been in place since 2007. A judgment from the House of Lords stated that the risk of future harmful disease developing as a result of the diagnosed presence of pleural plaques was not an actionable injury for compensation because a claim of negligence requires an “essential proof of damage” to be established.

Those diagnosed with pleural plaques excluded

In August 2011, The ‘Pleural Plaques Former Claimants Scheme’ was introduced by the Ministry of Justice, which does allow one-off payments of £5,000 –  but only to those individuals who had already begun but not resolved, a legal asbestosis claim for pleural plaques compensation.

However, it was noted during the passing of the Mesothelioma Bill for the introduction of the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS) in July 2014 that only sufferers of mesothelioma were eligible to apply. Those individuals diagnosed with other asbestos-related conditions, including pleural plaques, were clearly excluded.

While the 2007 judgement continues to be the position in England and Wales, the local parliaments of Scotland and NI passed legislation – Damages (Asbestos Related Conditions) Act (NI) 2011 – reversing the House of Lords ruling, which allows action damages for personal injuries to be made for pleural plaques.

In a recent case involving the widow of a deceased victim of pleural plaques held in a NI court, the judge ruled that the condition is now “a statutory personal injury for which damages can and should be awarded if the plaintiff proves fault against the defendant.”

“Condition…must have caused some stress and anxiety”

The widow’s husband had been employed at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast between 1955 to 1961 and at the Royal Mail, 1964 to 1980. Both companies admitted that the victim was exposed to asbestos during his employment at both workplaces even though it was found that his death was not in any way caused by an asbestos related condition. It was also stated that any anxiety or stress that the husband suffered before his death as a result of the diagnosis “did not amount to any identified psychiatric condition.”

However, the judge commented that, “the knowledge that he had pleural plaques and his awareness of deaths from asbestos related conditions must have caused him some stress and anxiety.” Consequently, he “could not see any reason not to revert to using the guidelines” and awarded damages of £10,000 with 2 per cent interest to reflect “changes in the retail price index.”

The judgement was the first time that the Damages (Asbestos Related Conditions) Act (NI) 2011 had been referred to in a case of pleural plaques. It has also been seen as a significant development in recognising the broader impact of any asbestos condition upon victims, their spouse and families, irrespective of any suffering or stress caused by asbestosis symptoms as a direct result of original asbestos exposure.

An average of 340 new pleural thickening cases were reported each year in the last decade, according to the Health and Safety Executive and just over 820 cases were diagnosed in 2011 alone.