Insurance companies had argued that they were only liable for workplace injuries and not for industrial diseases that take time to appear.
The Unite union called today’s verdict a landmark ruling that will affect many of the 2,500 people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
The Supreme Court upheld the appeal lodged by the union on behalf of the family of a deceased member. Unite appealed after insurance companies were partly successful in an earlier appeal to the Court of Appeal. The companies argued that in some cases the employers’ liability insurance is ‘triggered’ not by the exposure to asbestos but by the development of the disease which is always decades later when there is no insurance in place to respond to the claim.
In his judgment Lord Clarke concluded that: “The whole purpose of these policies was to insure employers against liability to their employees. That purpose would be frustrated if the insurers’ submissions on this point were accepted.”
Lord Phillips added that diseases are contracted when the process that leads to them is initiated as a result of wrongful exposure to the noxious substance that causes the disease.
The judgment went on to emphasise that these principles apply not only to mesothelioma but also to other industrial diseases.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey responded: “This is a landmark ruling which will affect thousands of victims of asbestos. It is a disgrace that insurance companies went to such lengths to shirk their responsibilities. For callous insurers this means the responsibility holiday is over. Unite fought this case to the highest court to get justice for Charles, his family and all victims of asbestos. Justice for ordinary people and the ability of trade unions to bring these cases won’t be possible if the government succeeds in slamming the door to justice with their legal aid bill.”
Unite’s appeal was on behalf of the family of Charles O’Farrell, a retired member who died of mesothelioma in 2003. He was exposed to asbestos while working as a steel erector from 1964 to 1967 for Humphreys & Glasgow Ltd, which was insured at the time by Excess Insurance Company Ltd. The employer ceased trading in 1992.
His daughter Maureen Edwards said: "All I ever prayed for was the right decision. This is the right decision. I am delighted for all those families who have been awaiting this result.
“My dad worked all his life and was hoping to enjoy retirement before mesothelioma took him away. There was never any question about who was to blame; all this long battle was about was insurers wanting to get out of paying. It is very difficult for us to understand the insurance industry’s attitude to dying people, an attitude that the government is going to make worse.”