An estimated 12,000 people lose their lives to occupational lung disease every year, of which one fifth are victims of mesothelioma and a further 1 in 5 fatalities are the result of asbestosis, according to a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report, November 2017.

Every day, WESolicitors regularly receive anxious enquiries from victims or their loved ones who have received a confirmed diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease in the family. Their stories are sadly, all too familiar – an elderly parent has increasing difficulties in breathing or feels a dull pain in their chest that won’t go away. A visit to their GP, and a detailed medical test later, brings a shock announcement.

Suddenly, fragmented memories of the family member’s past tumble into the present. Recollections of the father who worked directly with asbestos or in asbestos-insulated boiler rooms where the air was thick with dust. A mother who washed her husband’s asbestos-contaminated overalls every day. Perhaps, the home they lived in for many years was found to contain hidden asbestos in the ceilings during a water leak, a school classroom where the dust collected on the window sill.

Time and time again, witness statements are filled with the same story

The questions are clear and to the point. The family needs to know how and why exposure was allowed to happen. Time and time again, witness statements are filled with the same story – the lack of any protection provided by an employer nor any safety warnings about the potential health dangers of exposure to asbestos.

The fall-out from Britain’s long history of asbestos use, which only saw the first ban introduced in the mid-1980s, continues to leave a devastating legacy for the many thousands of innocent victims. In 2016, more than 90 per cent of new cases of occupational lung diseases assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), were associated with past asbestos exposure.

Finding answers and making their voice heard is a constant theme repeated by victims as they consider pursuing a civil action. An asbestos compensation claim is often a more complex process than a standard personal injury claim and demands the specialist knowledge of experienced asbestosis lawyers. Nevertheless, while there are a number of asbestos-related conditions that a victim may fatally suffer from – notably mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer – not all claims for the injuries and damage they cause will achieve an identical outcome in court.

Accepted that the condition is potentially progressive and a claim more likely to succeed

A typical example can be an exposure victim who suffers with breathing problems caused by pleural thickening, where asbestos fibre dust particles embedded in the lung linings result in a scarring, calcification and fibrosis of the membrane tissue. The courts would invariably consider a claimant to be at an increased risk only of developing an asbestos-related disease as a “direct result of their exposure to asbestos” rather than due to the asbestosis symptoms, themselves. More recently, it has been accepted that the condition is potentially progressive, and a claim is more likely to succeed in court. In one recent case, a five-figure sum for the “provisional harm” caused by pleural thickening and pleural effusions was awarded to a former steel worker exposed to asbestos over a twenty-year period.

Victims suffering with pleural plaques still have a challenge to overcome in trying to obtain a favourable verdict in court. Despite some 430 new cases of pleural plaques diagnosed every year in the UK (Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit – IIDB), since a Ministry of Justice ruling in October 2007, the condition has not been accepted as grounds for awarding damages under the civil law.

Hope for sufferers was given a recent boost by a 2014 study

Pleural plaques is a fibrous thickening and scarring of the inner surface of the lung linings (pleura), which are known “indicators” of exposure to asbestos. However, they are not viewed as “harmful in themselves”, i.e. they are neither cancerous nor tumour forming. It was for this reason that insurance companies challenged the right of victims to pursue compensation, based upon their demand for “proof of damage, loss or injury… which is actionable” to be an essential component of the claim.

However, even a low-dose and irregular exposure can still cause pleural plaques to form for around 50 per cent of all victims exposed to asbestos, and are almost always present in patients with asbestos-related disease and often in patients suffering with mesothelioma. Hope for sufferers was given a recent boost when a 2014 study challenged the idea that pleural plaques was benign and was without harmful symptoms. A year later, researchers found a statistically significant “2 – 4 per cent decrease in lung function…”

For a victim or their family to succeed in their case of asbestos exposure it will always be important to bring a former employer to account. In many instances, an out of court settlement will be made, which can be crucial where life expectancy for a mesothelioma victim may be short. Where a company no longer exists, it is always possible for an asbestosis lawyer to trace the insurers, and also advise and assist in applying for the various Government compensation schemes.