Asbestos: legal victory could help UK school pupils

 

School is the place where you expect to be nurtured and protected while learning the skills to equip you for a full and active life.

So it is frightening to think that in the 1970s many children were innocently playing and learning in classrooms situated near asbestos.

No win no fee solicitors such as Claims Direct are experts at helping people who have been exposed to asbestos receive the compensation they need and deserve. And a recent court ruling means that they can help many more people whose lives have been blighted by asbestos.

The deadly mineral was used as a building material until it was banned completely in the late 1990s – too late for many pupils, and teachers, who were exposed to it.

Dianne Willmore is just one of many pupils who studied in a classroom near asbestos. But what makes her unique is that she recently became the first person to be awarded compensation because she was exposed to asbestos while at school.

Bullies

Mrs Willmore suffered from malignant mesothelioma after coming into contact with asbestos dust found on roof tiles at Bowring Secondary School in Huyton, Liverpool, when she was a pupil there in the 1970s. School bullies, a court learned, would hide other pupils’ bags among the ceiling tiles. 

The mother-of-two died in 2009, aged 49: a sobering reminder of how long it can take for the symptoms of exposure to asbestos to become apparent and have deadly consequences.

A Supreme Court judge ruled that the Wrexham-based Tesco worker was entitled to £240,000 – making her the first person to receive compensation after being exposed to the substance in a school.

Appeal

Tragically, she died the day after the award was made and was not alive when Knowsley Council appealed against the decision; action which meant the award was frozen.

The council argued in the Supreme Court that they should not be held liable for a pay-out since there was no proof that Mrs Willmore’s exposure to asbestos had “doubled” the risk of mesothelioma. 

Seven Supreme Court justices carefully considered the council’s argument and last week, on March 8th 2011, unanimously rejected it. 

The verdict could pave the way for other people exposed to asbestos in schools to receive the compensation they need and deserve – there is now no requirement for a claimant to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was a doubling of the risk. 

Solicitor Ruth Davies, who represented Mrs Willmore’s family, believes that the council were trying to change a law so that “fewer people who are dying can get properly compensated”.

Mrs Willmore’s taxi-driver husband Barre was pleased that his wife knew on her deathbed that her family would be provided for and relieved that she wasn’t aware of the appeal which delayed the compensation.

He said: "Dianne always thought she was a very ordinary person. But this case has shown that she wasn't. By fighting this case she made all the difference.”

A Knowsley Council spokesperson commented: “It has always been clear that Mrs Willmore suffered from a severe illness which was caused by exposure to asbestos and the council is, and always has been, extremely sympathetic to Mrs Willmore and her family.”

Other reaction to the verdict

Simon Allen of Russell Jones & Walker solicitors welcomed the court’s verdict by saying: “This is a very helpful decision and should avoid those suffering from this dreadful condition having to spend their last days in litigation.”

Michael Lees, director of campaign group Asbestos in Schools, said: “We’re sitting on an asbestos time bomb” and stressed that “thousands of former pupils” have been affected by exposure to asbestos.

Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers, said: “We hope it will act as a wake-up call for local authorities and other employers to improve asbestos management in schools.”

Asbestos in schools: the stats

- Campaigners believe that asbestos is still present in 75 to 90 per cent of schools

- Schools which were hastily erected in the 1960s and 1970s are the most likely to have toxic forms of asbestos: there are thought to be 13,000 of these on the danger list

- In the last decade, it is thought that 140 teachers have died of mesothelioma – a disease often associated with exposure to asbestos