Pursuing asbestos compensation for pleural thickening and/or pleural plaques can present a challenge to anyone who was exposed to the fibre dust at their former place of work. The claimant’s employer may deny any liability for his former employee’s subsequent respiratory problems. Or the defendant refuses to accept that the condition is causing the claimant any harmful or debilitating health issues.

In one recent case, two different medical diagnoses arrived at differing conclusions. In response, the defendant continued to robustly deny any liability, even though the victim was eventually found to be suffering from both pleural plaques and pleural thickening.

Half of all those exposed to asbestos will develop pleural plaques

In contrast to fatal mesothelioma cancer, both pleural thickening and pleural plaques are non-malignant conditions. Around a half of all those who are exposed to asbestos will develop pleural plaques – dense areas of scar tissue seen on both sides of the lungs – which may increase the risk of developing lung cancer. They are different from pleural thickening, which causes fibrosis scarring and thickening on either one or both sides of the lungs, known as bilateral, or diffuse, if widespread.

Diffuse pleural thickening (DPT) severely reduces the elasticity and ability of the lung to function, and is the more serious of the two conditions because it extends over a larger area than the localised scarring of pleural plaques. The victims will experience symptoms, such as shortness of breath, feeling of tightness across the chest and general chest pains.

The presence of both pleural plaques and pleural thickening is almost always an indication of exposure to asbestos and often present in patients with mesothelioma or an asbestosis disease.

Defendant continued to deny claimant was suffering from pleural thickening

The first medical examination confirmed that the claimant, a former builder, was suffering from diffuse pleural thickening, which just passed the threshold level to be eligible for claiming compensation. The criteria, as determined by a CT scan, holds that pleural thickening must measure more than 5cm by 8cm by 3mm in depth.

However, the examination also found pleural plaques were present, considered to be non-injurious and therefore, not eligible for compensation. According to The Ministry of Justice (MoJ), those individuals diagnosed with pleural plaques would only have an increased risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, such as mesothelioma, as a direct result of their exposure to asbestos rather than because of the plaques themselves.

Despite the diagnoses of the medical experts the defendant continued to deny liability, or even that the claimant was suffering from pleural thickening or any other type of asbestos related disease. Instead, the defendant sought their own medical evidence, which initially confirmed that pleural plaques were present but not causing any symptoms.

Furthermore, the claimant’s medical examiners revised their initial finding. They agreed that the extent of the victim’s pleural thickening did not actually pass the eligibility threshold according to the required criteria. However, it was accepted by all parties that the presence of pleural plaques was, unusually, causing the claimant to suffer a “respiratory disability”.

Nevertheless, the defendant still continued to deny liability.

Pleural thickening cases have risen over the last twenty years

The case was then heard at the High Court before a judge, specialising in asbestos claims who held the defendant was liable. Tragically, the victim had not survived to hear the judge’s verdict. After the hearing, the claimant’s widow said that all she wanted was ‘justice’ for her late husband, and the main aim in most mesothelioma compensation cases.

Employers in many asbestos-using industries often failed to provide any health and safety information or issue protective equipment to their workforce. Decades later, the same employers can dispute liability for their employee’s exposure and even deny that they either have or are suffering from an asbestos-related disease.

Cases of pleural thickening have risen over the last twenty years and an average of 430 new pleural thickening cases were annually reported over a ten year period, according to the Health and Safety Executive. In 2014, the number of diffuse pleural thickening cases newly assessed by the Industrial Injuries Disablement Scheme (IIDB) was 425, compared to just 150 cases in 1991.