The High Court in Manchester will begin to hear 10 test cases on 8 November brought by the insurance industry in an attempt to reduce the amount of compensation it pays out each year to asbestos victims. The case is likely to last four days.

An attempt to change the law was made two years ago when the insurance industry argued that mesothelioma, an invariably terminal cancer of the lining of the lungs caused by asbestos, was not due to any single asbestos exposure, if the victim had more than one source of exposure to asbestos. That attempt failed when the Law Lords decided that any asbestos exposure that materially increased the risk of this cancer should be said to have caused it. Mesothelioma causes 1,800 deaths a year in Britain.

The condition now under attack is at the other end of the scale. It is known as pleural plaques. Plaques are internal scars on the lining of the lungs, which are a marker of asbestos exposure. On being diagnosed with plaques, patients are usually anxious, and in some cases have developed psychiatric illness, because of the asbestos cancer risk. The insurers now argue that, because the number of cases has increased, because plaques only occasionally cause breathlessness or pain, and because the anxiety arguably stems from the exposure to asbestos and not the plaques condition, compensation should be halted for pleural plaques. The condition has been compensated by the legal system for the last 20 years, but the numbers of victims have grown to such an extent that the insurance industry has felt it necessary to try to change the law.

Indiscriminate use of asbestos in many industries until the early 1980s

Typical awards for pleural plaques are £5000, with the right to return to court if more serious asbestos related illness develops, or £10,000 on a full and final basis.

Insurers blame the 'compensation culture' for the rising number of plaques victims. The real cause is the widespread and indiscriminate use of asbestos in many industries until the early 1980s, and a failure by employers to protect workers by giving them masks or fitting dust extraction. One of the worst affected industries was shipbuilding, in which several of the men whose cases will be decided worked. A lagger who worked with asbestos has a 1 in 10 lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma, the risk increasing as he gets older. The disease has wiped out a generation of men.

It is becoming increasingly common for wives of former asbestos workers to develop mesothelioma as a result of handling and washing clothes contaminated with asbestos dust.  The Court of Appeal will consider such a case for the family of Teresa Maguire on 10 November.  It will decide the date by which employers should have done something to protect family members of asbestos workers from the risks of asbestos dust brought home on their clothes.

The plaques victims' cases have been prepared by:

  • Thompsons Solicitors  (Ian McFall | Jennie Walsh)
  • John Pickering & Partners (Geraldine Coombs | Anthony Coombs)