Ruling means sufferers from deadly cancer can claim compensation from insurers who covered employers

A landmark judgement in the High Court has brought relief to the victims of asbestos-related diseases and their employers.

Mr Justice Burton this morning ruled that victims of the deadly cancer mesothelioma will be able to claim compensation from the insurers who were covering their employers at the time they were exposed to asbestos. This can be up to 50 years before the symptoms surfaced.

Those insurers had argued that later policies should pay the claims, dating from the time the tumour developed or the symptoms became apparent. This would have left hundreds of present and future victims without any source of compensation. There would have been no valid insurance policy in place and they would not have been eligible for the government’s compensation scheme. This morning’s judgement is likely to face appeal but it is good news for sufferers, their families and their employers who would be left to pay claims from their own funds, which average £125-175,000.

Mr Justice Burton this morning delivered his judgement on six test cases, which were heard over a period of two months in the summer. The cases involved the families of workers who died of asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, their employers, local authorities and insurers, represented by 20 barristers and 14 firms of solicitors.

The “trigger litigation” case hinged on the wording in the employers’ liability policies in place at the time when the workers were exposed to asbestos. In many cases, it refers not to “injury caused” during the time of employment but variations on “injury sustained” or “disease contracted”. After asbestos has been inhaled, it may lie dormant in the lungs for 30 years or more before a tumour develops. The court heard detailed medical evidence from a number of experts attempting to pinpoint the “trigger” of an insurance policy.

For many years, employers liability insurers have paid out on an exposure/causation basis, but in 2006, in a public liability case the Court of Appeal found that the later insurer should pick up the claim.

But Mr Justice Burton today ruled that Employers liability policies were a different case and that the traditional interpretation should stand.