Compensation upheld for Perth man who died after asbestos exposure at SA
BHP shipyard 'sets precedent'
The lawyer representing a man who died from an asbestos-related illness says a High Court decision upholding his compensation sets an important legal precedent for former BHP Billiton workers who contract mesothelioma.
The Sydney court rejected the company's bid to appeal against a compensation claim awarded to Perth man Willem van Soest who was exposed to asbestos during an 11-week stint as a painter and docker at South Australia's Whyalla Shipyard in 1962.
At the time he was working near laggers who were installing asbestos insulation around pipes and boilers. Mr van Soest was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012 and died the next year aged 74.
Lawyer for Mr van Soest, Annie Hoffman, said the decision ended a three-and-a-half year legal battle and could affect other workers."The BHP shipyards employed thousands of people in a number of industries who were exposed to asbestos," she said. "People continue to get diagnosed with this disease every year so indeed this makes it a lot easier for those who are suffering from the disease and perhaps still to contract the disease."
During the hearing, Peter Semmler QC who was representing Mr van Soest, said "respirators were available, but they didn't say you should wear them for this process". For nearly two decades we've seen BHP aggressively fight claims, forcing people who are already sick or dying through a lengthy, difficult legal process.
Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia president Terry Miller, "The response should always be that you take precautions when there is asbestos present ... there is a real risk of a lung injury, including a lung injury that can cause death."
Chief Justice Robert French and Justice Stephen Gageler rejected BHP's application for special leave to appeal against the $358,000 compensation awarded to Mr van Soest in the District Court and upheld in the Supreme Court in South Australia.
Ms Hoffman said BHP knew about and should have taken action over the dangers of asbestos in its shipyard. "It should have done something to protect people like Mr van Soest," she said. "It should have provided respirators. "It should have warned them to the dangers to which they were exposed."
Ms Hoffman said the case has some similarities to those involving building materials company James Hardie Industries. "Hardies took on this litigation quite ferociously at the beginning and certainly after taking case after case through the courts they now seem to have a different approach to this litigation," she said. "And we are hoping that this will mark the start of a different approach by BHP to this litigation."
Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia president Terry Miller said it was now time for BHP Billiton to do the right thing by asbestos victims and take a more conciliatory approach to future compensation claims.
"For nearly two decades we've seen BHP aggressively fight claims, forcing people who are already sick or dying through a lengthy, difficult legal process," he said.
"We hope that today's decision will put an end to that, and that the High Court's rejection of the appeal, which followed three similar decisions of the South Australian Supreme Court, will mean a better outcome for current and future victims."