Thousands of workers exposed to asbestos lose right to compensation, saving insurance firms £1.4bn in payouts

Union leaders have hit out at a landmark ruling that will prevent workers receiving compensation if they are exposed to asbestos but do not suffer any illness.

Thousands of potential claimants may be denied compensation after the Court of Appeal judged that pleural plaques - a benign scarring of the lung lining that indicates exposure to asbestos - are "neither visible, nor symptomatic" and "in no way impair the bodily functions".

UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: "This is a heartless decision. Workers who have been affected by asbestos exposure are now being denied compensation."

Amicus, which acted for the claimants in the case, estimates that more than 100,000 pleural plaque claims were expected over the next 35 years, costing insurers £1.4bn.

Amicus intends to take its case against insurers Norwich Union and Zurich Insurance to the House of Lords.

Ian McFall from Thompsons Solicitors, which represented Amicus, said: "Many of our clients are outraged and offended that the court has trivialised their injuries by holding that they are not worthy of compensation."

Norwich Union said the ruling meant all payments for pleural plaque claims would be put on hold pending a ruling in the House of Lords.

It said the level of awards for pleural plaques had increased 500% over the past 20 years.

Zurich Insurance said no action would be taken over existing cases at present. It said the case "draws a clear line under the issue of whether pleural plaques should be compensatable. Claimants with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related conditions will continue to be entitled to compensation."

The ruling comes amid growing unrest from unions over the apparent relaxation of asbestos regulations. A Health and Safety Executive consultation on the substance, which ended this week, proposed a relaxation of rules to enable certain types of asbestos to be removed from buildings by unlicensed contractors. There will also be a single, lower control limit for worker exposure to asbestos. Unions including the T&G have attacked the measures as irresponsible, but the HSE has defended the proposals, claiming they take into account research.

A man diagnosed with mesothelioma 40 years after working at a gasworks has had his right to £86,000 compensation upheld by the Court of Appeal. Gerry Cox, 84, worked at a Hull gas plant in the late 1960s. Transco appealed after it was found liable to pay compensation at York County Court in December last year.