Q fever is a bacterial infection normally associated with farm workers, transmitted to humans via livestock. For example, it can be transmitted during animal birth via contact with the placenta. It is rare and little is known about it in this country. It was called “Q” after query, as it was not known for a long time what it was.

This was a group action test case. There was an outbreak of Q fever in the defendant’s factory with more than 90 employees suffering symptoms. Renovations were carried out at the defendant’s office block in 2002.

Straw board, which was placed in the walls and ceilings for insulation in the 1950’s, was ripped out and dust / fragments were blown around the factory. The work was carried out by the second defendant. It was the claimants’ case that the bacteria spores were lying dormant in the straw board until the renovations in 2002 when it was released into the workplace. This was supported by our microbiologist Professor Eykyn and to a lesser degree by our engineer Mr Hanson.

Criticisms were made of the way the renovations were carried out, allowing dust / particles to blow around the workplace. Detailed skeleton arguments were put forward on interpretation of the COSHH Regs by both sides. We took QC’s advice.

An important point on the COSHH regs was whether the employer had to control any risk (whether or not it was known to them) or any known risk. It was accepted by all parties that the employers could not possibly have known that the Q fever spores were lying dormant in the straw board. However, the engineers accepted that it was foreseeable to expect dust to be released and dust can carry all sorts of hazards.

We represented four UNITE claimants – Heard/Burrows/Wilkins/Pope. Leo Abse Solicitors represented 60+ GMB claimants. Our case of Heard and Leo Abse’s case of Webb were chosen as the lead cases. Of our four cases, Mr. Heard’s had the more serious symptoms although fortunately none of our claimants developed chronic ‘Q’.

The two lead cases were listed for a six-day trial in October 2007. The matter settled at court on the day but only on liability. Liability was agreed on an 80/20 per cent basis for each claimant. Both defendants agreed liability between them, the employer at 75 per cent and the second defendant, the fitters, at 25 per cent.

The matter was then listed for a disposal hearing that took place on 14 July 2008. Only our four cases were heard on that date, the Abse’s cases are still in process of obtaining medical reports for all claimants. Symptoms in humans range from severe flu-like symptoms (acute ‘Q’) to more serious illnesses such as endocarditis (chronic ‘Q’), a bacterial infection of the heart valves. Ours were the less serious acute Q and the cases settled, net of 20 per cent liability deduction for awards between £3,500 and £8,000.

Heard -v- SCA Packaging and Imperial Interiors. Cardiff County Court, 14 July 2008 His Honour Hugh Jones