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M&S saleswoman negligently exposed to asbestos wins High Court case

Shop worker who has mesothelioma was exposed to asbestos when working for Marks and Spencer in London - watch her video and read her statement

Posted on 25 June 2014

A 53-year-old saleswoman from Middlesex, who was exposed to asbestos on the shop floor whilst working for the retail giant Marks & Spencer in their flagship Marble Arch store, has won her case for compensation in the High Court.

Janice Allen who now lives in Harrow, worked in two Marks and Spencer stores between 1978 and 1987, first in its flagship store near Marble Arch on London's Oxford Street and then at its Uxbridge branch as a supervisor.

In 2013 she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer of the pleural lining of the lung caused almost exclusively by asbestos, she has only months to live.

Her lawyer, Harminder Bains, from the law firm Leigh Day, applied for a court order that Marks & Spencer disclose documents, including surveys of stores.  As a result of the application, Marks & Spencer admitted negligently exposing Mrs Allen to asbestos.

Mrs Allen’s case is thought to be the first in which judgment has been given in court for a Marks & Spencer employee who was exposed to asbestos by simply working on the shop floor.

Her case was listed for trial on 25 June 2014.  Prior to the court date, Marks & Spencer made an offer described to them as ‘derisory’ by her lawyers. However, at the doors of the court, Marks & Spencer asked to negotiate further and agreed to pay Mrs Allen a significant undisclosed sum.

Miss Bains, a partner in the industrial diseases team at law firm Leigh Day,  stated that there were generally three phases of people have been affected by mesothelioma. 

The first phase was those, like Miss Bains’ own father who died from mesothelioma, who worked directly with asbestos in industry. 

The second phase concerned those such as electricians who, by undertaking their daily work, were exposed to asbestos. 

The third phase concerns those, like Mrs Allen, who simply work in buildings, which have been constructed from asbestos. 

Miss Bains said that she is concerned that members of the public may have been exposed to asbestos as she has acted for victims of mesothelioma who have died after being exposed in banks, offices and hospitals and is also aware of cases involving people dying from mesothelioma who were exposed in schools.

Describing Mrs Allen as an inspiration, Miss Bains praised her bravery in fighting the case ‘to the court steps’ despite her advanced cancer and explained that the exposure to asbestos can take many years before developing into debilitating, and often fatal, diseases such as mesothelioma.

Miss Bains said:

“It can take as long as 40 years for exposure to asbestos to manifest in those who have inhaled asbestos”.

The case was aided by evidence from William Wallace, a Health and Safety Officer who had informed the HSE of the criminally unsafe work with asbestos at Marks & Spencer’s Reading branch, the company was fined £1m, for unsafe handling of asbestos at that branch.

Mr Wallace also worked at the Marble Arch store in 1998, and acted as a witness in Allen's legal claim.

He told the High Court:

“There were minefields – asbestos minefields, for want of a better expression. You could not have guaranteed the safety of anybody – the workers, the staff, the customers. You could not have given a 100 per cent guarantee that those people were safe”.

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper Mrs Allen said she is “devastated and distraught” by her diagnosis.

She told the paper “I feel betrayed by Marks & Spencer,”

“The company used to portray itself like a family, they engendered loyalty. I worked very hard; I met my husband there. But to think beneath the surface they were exposing people to deadly risks.

“My husband and I were looking forward to enjoying life in the coming years; instead I have to face the fact I will not live to see my grandchildren.”

Miss Bains, a long time campaigner and advocate for victims of asbestos, pleads with the Government to stop cutting health and safety legislation and attempting to prevent victims of mesothelioma to have immediate access to the courts as this will result in injustice and prevent many victims obtaining their rightful compensation which results from unlawful work practices.