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The potential dangers of organic solvents: Multiple sclerosis following military service

The danger posed to workers from exposure to some substances, such as asbestos, is well known. Asbestos is not the only substance workers are exposed to that pose a significant risk and other substances like organic solvents, which can also have devastating impacts, are less well known.

Irwin Mitchell last year went to trial on potentially the first case brought of its kind relating to the exposure to chemicals, organic solvents in this matter, leading to an individual developing multiple sclerosis (MS). 

Whilst the specialist military claim team at Irwin Mitchell has acted in high profile case such as Chinook Crash 1994 and the Nimrod crash in Afghanistan in 2006, we have always done, and continue to do, higher numbers of “disease” cases against the MoD through our specialist non-freezing cold injury and noise induced hearing loss teams and workplace injury teams.

Multiple Sclerosis 

MS is a degenerative disease that affects the brain and the nerves throughout the body. It cannot be cured, although treatments are available to ease the symptoms. MS is classed as an auto-immune condition where the immune system attacks nerves. 

MS is rarely fatal on its own but complications arise from severe MS, such as chest or bladder infections, or swallowing difficulties. The life expectancy is roughly five-10 years less than a normal person but with significant care needed as the condition progresses.

There has been a known link between chemical exposure and auto-immune diseases as multiple studies have shown that toxic substances can interfere with the immune systems as a cellular level, which can lead to auto-immune conditions (or make the symptoms of existing conditions worse). 

These studies, which have increased in the last few years, supported our contention that the exposure to organic solvents had caused MS.

By the time of trial our client was walking with a stick and used a mobility scooter at times. His concentration and memory were poor and he was no longer able to work. He was likely to require increasing levels of care and specialist accommodation in the future as his condition progressed.

Our Case

Our client served in the Military between 1989 and 2003 during which time he believed he was exposed to a wide range of volatile agents. However, he only developed symptoms and was diagnose with MS in 2008.

Liability was denied in the case and there were multiple issues raised by the MoD in the claim, including the time-limits that apply to all personal injury claims. 

A claimant has only three years from the date they were injured, or knew they had developed a significant condition, to bring a claim. This was a clear issue in this case given the diagnosis in 2008. This strict timeframe can be extended but this is only done when specific conditions are met and therefore it is important to seek help sooner rather than later when you suffer an injury.

The MoD also raised contributory negligence, effectively stating that the claimant was in part to blame for his exposure to the chemicals in question as a result of his failure to follow training or wear/maintain protective equipment. 

This was despite allegations of poor working conditions at various RAF bases, inadequate ventilation, lack of suitable respiratory protective equipment and unsafe working practices such as being inserted headfirst by two other colleagues into the air-intakes of Hawk jets (the jets that are used by the Red Arrows) in order that he could strip the paint from their interiors using organic solvents. Our client had an exemplary service records and there was never any mention of him failing to comply with training or wear protective equipment in any records disclosed by the MoD.

The significance of the case was clear from the beginning and BCL Legal reported on an interlocutory hearing under the title “Pushing the Boundaries of Causation in Disease Claims”. The Government Legal Department who acted for the MOD acknowledged that the case was likely to capture “wide public interest and significance”.

Conclusion of the claim and future claims

In the end, the case went to trial but after hearing 11 days of evidence, the MoD decided to settle the case without any admissions being made, rather than wait for the court’s judgment. 

This lack of admission, or finding of a court, does not prevent future claims being brought but also means that no precedent was set which would potentially bind the MoD or other employers in future claims.

Irwin Mitchell instructed Mike Rawlinson QC based in Manchester and London who commented that he could identify difficulties for defendants who rely on the extrapolation of epidemiological data to disprove causation in an individual case where the claimant has supportive evidence as to the mechanism of causation from a clinician. 

As a result this may make trials more likely in subsequent cases so that evidence, by way of expert reports and joint conferring, may be tested out in court.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting members of the Armed Forces who have suffered injury or developed a condition at our dedicated military injuries claims section.