Public liability insurers liable for "accidental" mesothelioma from time of symptoms

The local authority settled a mesothelioma claim and then claimed on its public liability insurance against, first, M who insured when the tumour and illness first developed and, second, C who insured at the earlier period when the relevant fibres were inhaled.

Held: The inhalation of potentially harmful asbestos fibres was not "accidental bodily injury or illness" as the inhalation and (lack of) symptoms in that period did not amount to an injury.

But the onset of mesothelioma when a cell became malignant was an “accident” in terms of M’s policy, and the public liability insurer was accordingly liable when that occurred during the currency of the policy.

Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council -v- (1) Municipal Mutual Insurance Ltd (2) Commercial Union Assurance Co Ltd (2005)

RSI claim succeeds against solicitors

Between 1980 and 1999, the claimant was employed by the defendants as a secretary/audio typist. The claimant spent over half her time audio typing documents. In 1999, the claimant's typing workload increased by 25 to 30 per cent when she covered for another secretary on maternity leave.

In February 1994, the defendants had carried out a work station assessment and the assessor noted on the form that the claimant had been taking medication for her wrists.

The claimant sustained injury and brought an action against the defendants alleging that it was negligent and/or in breach of its statutory duty under the Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 in failing to:

  • carry out a suitable and sufficient analysis of her workstation and assess the health and safety risks (regulation 2 (1))
  • reduce the risks identified in consequence of the assessments to the lowest extent reasonably practicable (regulation 2 (3))
  • plan the claimant's work activities so that her daily work on display screen equipment was periodically interrupted by breaks or changes in activity (regulation 4)
  • provide adequate health and safety training in the use of any workstation (regulation 6).

The claimant also submitted that the defendants were negligent in requiring her to undertake work in addition to her normal work load because they ought to have foreseen the possible consequences in light of what they knew or ought to have known about her wrist pain.

The liability was disputed. The defendants denied any negligence or breach of duty and submitted that her symptoms were the result of a somatoform disorder. The defendants also submitted that they had carried out a work station assessment and had provided a booklet entitled You and Your workstation.

At trial, the judge held that the defendants were in breach of duty in failing to comply with the requirements of the Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992. Furthermore, the defendants were in breach of regulation 5 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations duty to monitor health, and the inadequate way in which the risk assessment obligations were undertaken also gave rise to a claim in negligence. The judge was satisfied that the onset of the claimant's chronic symptoms in February 1999 would not have occurred but for the defendant's breach of statutory duty and negligence.

It was accepted the claimant had a permanent injury due to ongoing symptoms in her upper limbs and would never be able to return to typing work, she having tried and failed to return to four hours per day at work.

She recovered £11,500 general damages and £84,480 special damages.

Fifield -v- Denton Hall, Guildford CC, 22 March 2005, JR Reid QC.