The success of a mesothelioma claim involves a former employer accepting liability for an employee’s exposure to asbestos in the workplace which, ‘on the balance of probabilities’ contributed to the eventual development of the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings.

Sometimes cases are not always straightforward, especially if the employee was likely to have been exposed to asbestos at several different companies during the course of a working life. There can also be cases where the claimant was not directly employed by the company occupying the site where asbestos was present and exposure is said to have taken place.

One recent case shows how a law court might view the question of who is ultimately liable for a former employee’s mesothelioma. In this particular case, the company involved is the US global brand, the Ford Motor Co and their UK subsidiary, Ford Motor Co Ltd.

“Facilitating the distribution of the asbestos-containing auto parts…”

A former employee, a US resident, claimed his mesothelioma cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos when he worked with automotive parts, including car brake pads made from asbestos fibres, at a Ford factory in Ireland from the 1960s to the 1980s.

A court in New York has ruled that the former auto mechanic can proceed with his case against the Ford Motor Co in the US because of their “substantial role” in the design of car parts distributed by its UK subsidiary.

According to the judgement of the court, the case depended upon “…whether Ford USA may be held directly liable as a result of its role in facilitating the distribution of the asbestos-containing auto parts…” In its ruling the court found that “Ford USA acted as the global guardian of the Ford brand, having a substantial role in the design, development, and use of the auto parts distributed by Ford UK…”

In the court’s view, Ford USA “….with the apparent goal of the complete standardisation of all products worldwide that carried the signature Ford logo… was ‘in the best position to exert pressure for the improved safety of products’ or to warn the end users of these auto parts of the hazards they presented.”

Asbestos used in friction products

Ever since cylinder brake linings were first developed in 1902, asbestos has been used in automobile assembly friction products including, brake pads, disc brakes, clutches, gaskets, heat seals, valve rings and the bonnet lining.

Brake pads are made from five types of materials – binders, abrasives, performance, filler and structure. Up to 35 per cent of a brake lining product can contain asbestos fibres used to supply structural reinforcement and heat resistance. Continual abrasion releases microscopic asbestos fibres into the atmosphere and large amounts of asbestos material is trapped inside the brake housing or clutch space, which is then released when replacement or repair work is carried out.

In the US, a ban on asbestos issued in 1989 was later overturned in 1991, and use of asbestos is technically still allowed to this day.

It wasn’t until the first ban in 1985 that use of the most toxic brown and blue asbestos fibres was banned in the UK. Even though asbestos brake linings were largely phased out after the arrival of front-wheel drive vehicles in the 1980s, according to some motor industry insiders, they are still sometimes used in higher-end vehicles and available on the spare parts “after-sale” market.

Asbestos still found in a number of brake pad products

Asbestos can still be widely used as an inexpensive heat insulator in many industrial products and applications, including vehicle parts.

Around the world, asbestos fibres can still be found in a number of brake pad products being produced by non-OEM (original equipment manufacturers), especially among developing nations. It was recently reported that since 2009, nearly 25,000 Chinese cars from two different manufacturers, have been imported into Australia, which have only been recently discovered to contain asbestos fibres in nearly 30 different engine gaskets and also in the exhaust system.

The lawyers representing the former Ford Motor Co worker welcomed the US court finding that “Ford can be responsible for exposing people to its products around the world” and the “wide-ranging effects” of the decision.

Unfortunately, the continuing use of asbestos in manufactured products among a number of other countries still poses a significant global health risk to millions of ordinary citizens who simply feel unable to claim liability for asbestos-related diseases.