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High Court Victory For Coke Oven Cancer Victims

Irwin Mitchell Lawyers Say Landmark Judgment Could Help Hundreds Receive Justice For Illness


A leading industrial illness lawyer says a landmark decision in the High Court handed down today (23 October) could help hundreds of former coke oven workers receive justice for cancers and respiratory diseases they are now suffering because of exposure to harmful dust and fumes decades ago.

Mrs Justice Swift handed down the landmark judgment today in what experts at law firm Irwin Mitchell say is ‘one of the most significant court decisions of the year’ and could enable hundreds of others who became ill after working at coking plants and steel works to seek legal support in their battle for justice.

Because the coking plant in Wales involved in this case has been now been found liable by the High Court, employers in other regions may well be liable too and could now face claims. Areas badly affected include South Yorkshire, East Lancashire, the North East and Corby in Northampton where coking and steel plants were particularly prominent.

Specialist industrial illness lawyers at Irwin Mitchell have already received over 50 enquiries from people across the UK who were awaiting the judgment, and will now investigate their cases with a view to bringing justice on their behalf.

The eight lead claimants in the High Court, along with over 200 further victims whose claims were pending the result of this decision, were employed by the National Coal Board at the Phurnacite plant near Aberaman in South Wales between the 1940s and 1980s. They are all now suffering with various illnesses, including lung, skin and bladder cancers as well as respiratory disease and many have since died as a result of their condition.

The judge found that workers suffering with lung and squamous cell skin cancers as well as those suffering with other respiratory diseases including chronic bronchitis could now recover compensation as their conditions were caused by exposure to the harmful by-products emitted from the coking plant. The judge also ruled that employers were not liable for certain other illnesses including bladder and basal cell skin cancer.

David Urpeth, national head of the workplace injury and illness team at Irwin Mitchell, said: “This is a very significant decision and affects potentially hundreds of former coke oven workers throughout the UK who are now suffering illness as well as the families of those who have already passed away who will be left wondering whether their loved one’s disease was caused by working on coke ovens.

“We have already been contacted by over 50 people who have been eagerly awaiting this judgment and we will now be able to investigate their cases and where appropriate support them as they seek justice for the exposure to harmful chemicals that they endured while working.

“Employees have a basic right to be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day. Sadly, in these cases, the workers have been affected by very serious and in some cases terminal illnesses just because of the air they breathed at work.”

In each of the lead cases in the latest court action the defendant accepted that it did not take all practicable measures to protect employees from the inhalation of dust and fumes at the site. The company finally introduced proper respiratory protection around 1981 but workers had already been exposed to dangerous chemicals for decades.

In August this year, former coke oven workers with lung cancer also became entitled to industrial injuries disablement benefit, subject to meeting certain employment related criteria.

This followed a paper issued by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in September 2011 which found that the risk of contracting lung cancer doubled for those employees who worked on the coke ovens for 15 years or more. Those that worked on the oven top doubled the risk of contracting lung cancer after only five years of employment.

David Urpeth from Irwin Mitchell added: “Sadly this is yet another instance where workers are left paying the price of their employers not protecting their health and safety decades ago. We have repeatedly called for improvements to safety in the workplace and will continue to campaign for the rights of the victims we represent.”

Irwin Mitchell is now advising Michael Somerset, of Catcliffe in Rotherham, about his case following the High Court judgement issued today.

Michael, age 62, worked at the Orgreave Coke Works in Sheffield as an electrician for 14 years. He was exposed to the deadly dust and fume at the coke factory every day, which he believes caused the terminal lung cancer he is now suffering from.

Michael, who is married to wife Carole, has been eagerly awaiting the judgment and says he is relieved at the result.

“Today’s result is such a relief and great news, not just for me, but also my former work colleagues and their families who have lived with such terrible illnesses for so long.

“The working conditions at Orgreave were so dirty and dusty but we were never warned at the time about how detrimental working in a coking factory could be to our health. I’m going through chemotherapy to keep the cancer at bay but I still feel tired, breathless and in pain all the time – to think this could have been prevented is devastating.

“I believe my employers should have done more to protect me and my colleagues and I’m looking forward to hopefully taking my case forward with the help of Irwin Mitchell.

“I hope that my case highlights how important it is to get ex coke plant workers the justice they deserve.”