Inhaling airborne asbestos dust while refurbishments are being carried out in the workplace is a type of mesothelioma claim for non-occupational exposure that can be commonly heard in court. In many cases, the claimant simply did not know that the buildings where they worked every day contained asbestos. A diagnosis confirming mesothelioma – an incurable cancer of the lung linings caused by exposure to the fibre dust – can often come as a complete shock to the victim. Establishing how and where exposure occurred is not always so easy.

In a recent case, a former university lecturer claimed his exposure was caused by a site conversion carried out at the university library thirty five years prior to his mesothelioma being confirmed. It is established that there is a period of between 15 to 50 years or more from initial asbestos exposure to the appearance of asbestosis symptoms.

Robust defence

Whatever a victim’s understanding and asbestos awareness of the likely presence and potential health risks at the time, cases such as these are brought to court with the aim of showing that a claimant’s mesothelioma was connected with exposure caused by a disturbance of asbestos during refurbishments. A defending employer will often put up a robust defence and claim that employees were ‘not at risk at any time’ and dispute that a claimant’s mesothelioma was directly connected with asbestos disturbance during renovations from years earlier.

In the present case, the defendants disputed that the claimant was in the vicinity of the library area at the time when renovations were being carried out and argued that it was not clear how exactly his exposure occurred.

Difficulties in giving evidence

The former lecturer, aged 77, claimed he was exposed to asbestos over a two and half year period, between 1976 and 1979, when the library was being converted for a different use. He said he had been involved in advising on the new layout of the library and claimed to have visited the building site on 12 to 14 occasions during construction, including being present when stripping out of the building was taking place.

However, the judge suggested that there are difficulties in giving evidence about events that took place nearly forty years earlier. Processes of a “reconstructive nature” were likely to be “highly susceptible to error and inaccuracy”. The judge found it “improbable” that the lecturer would have been on the construction site when asbestos was being stripped out. It was much more likely that any visits made to the site would have been at a later stage, when any asbestos found would have already been removed.

Not confirmed a potential asbestos exposure to doctor

The court heard the lecturer confirm that he had no responsibility for the workmen on site and would not have been there on a day to day basis. He also agreed that one would normally expect stripping out to take place at the early stages of a project. Further doubt was cast on the claimant’s recollection when he was unable to explain why he had not confirmed a potential asbestos exposure to the doctor treating him at the time of his diagnosis, or stating in his benefits application completed shortly after diagnosis.

In other previous statements that the claimant made about his history of asbestos exposure there had been mention of his university work involving marine biology and the time spent on ships, which may have contained asbestos insulation.

Difficulties in establishing the connection

In his summing up, the judge made clear that a claimant must prove the “actual level of asbestos dust to which he was exposed” if negligence against a defendant in a low exposure case is to be established. This often means evaluating actual and cumulative levels of exposure. The view of the judge indicates the potential difficulties in establishing the connection between a victim’s possible inhaling of asbestos dust as a cause of mesothelioma in cases of ‘non-occupational’ exposure.

Increasingly, victims or their close family will call upon the former work colleagues to provide witness statements on workplace conditions or specific circumstances when asbestos was disturbed as vital evidence to help asbestosis lawyers establish a claimant’s case.