Men and women in their 70s or 80s, diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related conditions such as pleural thickening, are often suffering with other illnesses affecting their health. It can sometimes cause a difficulty in determining which condition was the actual cause of death, and in a number of cases the coroner may simply record an “industrial disease”, possibly asbestos-related. If the family of the deceased pursues a mesothelioma claim, the employer defendant can argue that it was the decline of one or more of the victim’s other health conditions, not necessarily asbestos-related, that was the actual cause of death.

In a recent asbestosis claim case resulting from occupational exposure to asbestos, the victim suffered from broncho-pneumonia and pleural thickening, which severely affected his breathing. Despite the post mortem clearly stating that the victim’s broncho-pneumonia directly caused his death at the age of 80, the victim’s family argued that it was the impact of pleural thickening, which led to the onset of a further lung disorder and a type of pneumonia directly leading to his death.

Victims with pleural thickening continues to rise

Pleural thickening develops when asbestos fibre dust particles are inhaled into the lungs, which eventually embed in the linings causing fibrosis, scarring, calcification and thickening of the membrane tissue. The condition is almost always an indication of exposure to asbestos and is present in patients with asbestos-related diseases, but it can also be the result of rheumatoid arthritis, surgery or by a previous respiratory infection.

It’s not just those men or women diagnosed with the fatal and incurable mesothelioma cancer who suffer with debilitating breathing problems and worsening health over a period of time. In the last twenty years, the number of victims exposed at work to asbestos and who are eventually diagnosed with pleural thickening, continues to rise. Latest available figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show there were 430 new cases of pleural thickening assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in 2015 compared to 1991, when there were just 150 cases diagnosed.

Deteriorating health made worse by pleural thickening

In the present case, the deceased was employed as a carpenter and maintenance man, repeatedly shown to be traditional occupations at most risk of frequent and regular exposure to asbestos. Two years prior to death, the victim’s health had deteriorated and he suffered breathing problems. The court heard that the general decline in health was due to a number of factors. While he suffered from repeated pneumonia, the condition was made worse by pleural thickening, a folded lung, and another condition resulting in the abnormal enlargement of parts of the airways of the lung within areas of pulmonary fibrosis – all the result of asbestos exposure.

The court found in favour of the family claimant that the deceased had suffered from “a significant amount of disability in the final years of his life due to the pleural thickening”, and it was the progress of that disease which was a cause of his death.

Claims for pleural thickening have improved in recent years

In an estimated one in four of pleural thickening cases, the level of disability caused by a worsening of the condition will increase on and off in the first ten years after diagnosis, reducing the elasticity and ability of the lung to function. The victim will suffer symptoms such as shortness of breath, feeling of tightness across the chest, which can develop into a more serious condition. In many cases, pleural thickening may not be detected by X-ray examination and a high resolution CT scan will be required. Today, an average of 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – will lose their lives every week to asbestosis disease or mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure, according to the HSE.

The prospects for a victim suffering with breathing problems caused by pleural thickening have improved in recent years. Victims were previously only considered to be at an increased risk of developing an asbestos-related disease as a “direct result of their exposure to asbestos” rather than because of the existence of asbestosis symptoms, themselves. It is also accepted that the condition is potentially progressive and a claim for this type of asbestos-related condition, which once posed a difficulty, can succeed in court.