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How washing clothes can kill

Carrying out an innocent household task has proved fatal for some people

Posted on 08 February 2010

With the growing media attention devoted to asbestos issues, one incredibly tragic aspect of the hazards of asbestos has perhaps received less attention than it deserves.  Whilst many men worked in trades that brought them directly into contact with asbestos, such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians, less time has been devoted to the wives who supported them and on occasions have developed illnesses simply through washing their clothing.

Leigh Day & Co partner, Daniel Easton, is currently acting for two women who have contracted mesothelioma, an asbestos related cancer, through washing clothing.  Whilst the cases are no less tragic or harrowing than those brought by men who worked with asbestos, the circumstances are particularly emotive in light of the fact that the women involved were simply trying to support their families and run their households.

In themselves, the cases give rise to particular difficulties that set them apart from typical asbestos claims.  The exposure received through washing clothing is inevitably lower level and it can therefore be harder to prove that the levels of exposure were significant enough to be considered “negligent”.  Generally speaking, in cases concerning exposure before 1965, it will be difficult to establish that the defendant was aware that the low-level exposure caused from washing clothing, was dangerous.  The vast majority of legislation focuses on the employees alone, and not their families, so the courts focus on the defendant’s “knowledge”.

Secondly, a more complex insurance issue arises following a Court of Appeal case in 2006.  Most companies hold different policies for insuring their employees (”employers’ liability” or ‘EL’) and insuring members of the public (“public liability” or ‘PL’).  If a wife or family member develops an asbestos illness, they have to claim under the PL insurance.  While the relevant EL policy is the one in place when the victim was exposed, the Court of Appeal, in Bolton v MMI, said the relevant PL policy is the one in place when the cancer developed, thought to be around 10 years before symptoms become apparent.  If the company did not exist 10 years ago, there will be no insurance in place to pay and the claim may fail as a result.

Whilst these issues need to be overcome, they most certainly should not be a deterrent to asbestos victims bringing a claim.  Successfully suing a company for damages can provide a financial life-line to the victims who are no longer able to work, or need assistance with their daily lives.  It can also provide financial security to a family who have lost someone to an asbestos illness.  It is however paramount that advice is sought from a specialist solicitors firm who have experience of dealing with complex asbestos cases, like Leigh Day & Co.

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