In the recent case of John Carey v Vauxhall Motors Limited  EWHC 238 (QB), the High Court has provided the prospect of compensation to a special, potentially large, category of predominantly female Claimants, in asbestos exposure cases.
This is believed to be the first case decided in favour of a wife exposed to asbestos by her husband’s work overalls.
Mrs Carey met her husband in 1976 and they married in 1978.
Mr Carey worked as a maintenance electrician for Vauxhall Motors at their Dunstable vehicle plant between 1977 and 1979.
His job at the plant brought him into contact with a number of potential sources of asbestos fibres, which attached themselves to his work overalls. He was not aware of the risk to his or his wife’s health of such exposure at the time, and neither was he warned of any such risk by Vauxhall.
The plant operated a voluntary scheme for laundering work overalls. It was not free, but was paid for through deductions from wages. Mr Carey did not use the service.
Mrs Carey washed and laundered her husband’s overalls, which he took home from work from time to time. She maintained that the overalls were contaminated with asbestos dust and fibres, which she inhaled.
The preliminary point in the case revolved around the nature and extent of any second hand exposure to asbestos, suffered by Mrs Carey, as a result of laundering her husband’s overalls.
Vauxhall accepted that they owed a duty of care to Mrs Carey, but denied that Mr Carey was exposed to significant asbestos on a routine basis and that any such exposure would have been both transient and minimal.
Mrs Carey developed malignant mesothelioma, a terminal condition, generally caused by either direct or indirect exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma can develop even after low level exposure to asbestos.There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos below which there is no risk.
Vauxhall argued that Mrs Carey could not have developed mesothelioma as a result of contact through her husband’s time at the plant, but that her condition was caused through exposure from other sources.
In particular from the asbestos in the work clothes of her father, from the early 1960’s, before she left home to marry Mr Carey, or from Mr Carey’s work clothes when he worked for a subsequent employer in the late 1970’s through to the mid 1980’s.
Mrs Carey hoped to undergo urgent immunotherapy treatment, to provide some relief from her symptoms, with the benefit of an interim compensation payment. This was dependant on her claim succeeding. The court therefore ordered an expedited trial.
Tragically Mrs Carey died a few days before the trial was due to take place. Mr Carey took over the case as her Personal Representative.
The court heard extensive evidence from Mr Carey and other witnesses who worked at the plant during the relevant period. Consideration was also given to the limited historic documentation Vauxhall were able to produce about the presence and removal of asbestos at the plant.
The Judge found that maintenance electricians, such as Mr Carey, were exposed to significant quantities of asbestos dust, which was picked up on his work clothing, skin and hair.
This in turn was transferred home where there would be further transfer of the dust and fibres through the laundering of his clothes by Mrs Carey and through normal personal contact.
Mr Carey therefore succeeded on liability on behalf of this late wife.
The outcome of this case should not only help Vauxhall plant employees, who have gone on to develop an asbestos related disease, but others in the same position through contact with them.
Whilst the decision came too late for Mrs Carey, it has wider implications for victims with an asbestos related disease, caused by second hand exposure through contaminated work clothing.
The High Court has recognised that such claims can succeed. This case is a significant step forward in the fight for compensation for the victims of asbestos related disease and their families.
If you would like to discuss a potential claim then please contact our Personal Injury Team.This article was written by Stephen Green, Personal Injury Partner at Pinney Talfourd LLP Solicitors. The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. This article is based on the law as of April 2019.