Supreme Court Ruling Welcomed By Asbestos Disease Specialist

Decision Brings Hope To Many Exposed To Deadly Fibres

10.03.2011

An asbestos-related disease specialist at Irwin Mitchell has voiced his relief over a landmark ruling which will help a large number of people who have suffered ‘low-level’ asbestos exposure in their battles for justice.

The Supreme Court yesterday (March 9th) unanimously dismissed a conjoined appeal launched in relation to Sienkiewicz v Greif and Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council v Willmore – two cases in which victims died of mesothelioma caused by exposure to a relatively small amount of asbestos fibres in office and school buildings respectively.

Experts have been eagerly anticipating the ruling, as an increasing number of people – particularly women – have suffered ‘low-level’ exposure to the deadly material and have sadly contracted mesothelioma.

The decision has massive implications for victims of asbestos and their loved ones, particularly as it increases their chances of success in their own battles for justice after being negligently exposed to asbestos.

Adrian Budgen, partner and head of Irwin Mitchell's national asbestos disease litigation team, said: “This ruling is a positive step towards proper acknowledgment of the risks that asbestos can pose in schools and other public buildings, even if the amount of fibres which pupils, teachers and others come into contact with is relatively small.

“The specialist team here at Irwin Mitchell has represented a number of teachers, schools workers and pupils who have suffered from asbestos-related cancer, which sadly demonstrates that cases like Dianne Willmore’s are not uncommon.”

Adrian added that, alongside these tragic stories, research has shown why the presence of asbestos should not be accepted in school buildings or similar sites.

He explained: “The risks posed by the toxic fibres have been shown to be far greater in children’s lungs rather than those which are fully-developed, meaning school pupils are more susceptible to the dangers of asbestos.

“We hope that this ruling - and its implications over what ‘low-level’ exposure can lead to - will lead to a step change in how the hazardous material’s presence in schools is viewed and hopefully lead to its eventual removal from all sites.”

“In addition, we will continue to campaign for the creation of a national register of public buildings that will allow those who work at such sites to be aware of the presence of asbestos and have the chance to prevent themselves from being exposure to the material.” 

Case study

The ruling is set to impact on the legal battles being fought by a number of people whose lives have been touched by the terrible legacy of asbestos, including 42-year-old Sarah Bowman from Wembley.

Sarah was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2009 and has been unable to work since she was told the devastating news. However, in a scenario very similar to that of Dianne Willmore, she knows of no time she could have been exposed to asbestos apart from when she was a pupil at William Gladstone High School in Brent in the late1970s and early 1980s.

She explains: “The school only officially opened in November 1975, which I’ve since learnt was a time when asbestos was still used in the construction of many education buildings.

“We regularly saw walls and partitions in classrooms broken through general day-to-day wear, as well as general horseplay among other pupils. Ceiling tiles would also be removed by workmen and boys would often run off and play with them.

“You don’t realise at the time just what the consequences of a little bit of fun like that can have in the future.”

Dust and fibres released in the air due to wall and ceiling damage are thought to be the direct cause of Sarah’s current illness. Irwin Mitchell is representing the former hospital worker, who has been unable to work since the diagnosis, in her battle for justice and have notified Brent Council of her claim.

“My life has been completely turned upside down by my illness and it has been massively difficult for everyone in my life to come to terms with,” Sarah added.

“I hope that this ruling will ensure, more than anything, that my family and I are provided with answers as to how I came to be exposed to the material. In addition, I just hope that lessons can be learnt that prevent other people in the future from suffering in the way I have.”

Caroline Pinfold, Partner and asbestos specialist at Irwin Mitchell’s London office, said: “Investigations following an arson attack on William Gladstone High School in 1992 led to the discovery of asbestos.

“However, Brent Council recently stated they do not hold any documents that would show whether asbestos would have been present during Sarah’s time at the school and we are continuing with our enquiries.”

Discussing the implications of the Supreme Court ruling, Caroline said: “We have been awaiting the outcome for some time, as we knew it would have massive implications on whether Sarah had the chance to be successful in her battle for justice.

“Thankfully the outcome means we can proceed safe in the knowledge that people like Sarah do now have the opportunity to get their voices heard. This is also likely to be a wake-up call to schools on just why the terrible legacy of asbestos needs to become a thing of the past.”