The decision was a victory for the attorneys for Judith Fairchild and Doreen Fox, whose husbands both died of mesothelioma, and Edwin Matthews, who is suffering from mesothelioma, who overturned an earlier Court of Appeals decision. The Appeals Court ruled in December that employers could not be held liable if the source of asbestos exposure was unknown. Workers with asbestos-related illnesses who worked for more than one company where they were exposed to the asbestos fibers fought the decision.
The high court judges, known as the Law Lords, overturned the Appeals Court ruling after hearing the three test cases. The decision could cost insurance companies as much as 8 billion pounds ($ 12 billion) to settle some 500 claims.
The ruling will help "thousands of sufferers from asbestos-related diseases and will teach the insurance industry a lesson it will never forget," said George Brumwell, general secretary of the union Ucatt, which backed the action. "The insurance companies have been shamed by this decision."
Fairchild, whose husband Arthur died in 1996, will receive approximately $277,000 and Matthews will be able to keep $224,000 awarded him earlier by the Law Lords. The Appeals Court originally overturned that decision and ordered him to repay the money.
Around 5,000 people died in Britain last year of asbestos-related diseases, and industry experts say the figure is expected to rise to 10,000 by 2010. It can take 50 years from the time of exposure to asbestos for illness to show up.
Giant manufacturing union Amicus is celebrating the Law Lords decision. "Tens of thousands of victims and their families are now to be spared suffering twice over as a result of this judgment. The victims' families, who had faced the prospect of the loss of their loved one without compensation will now get justice, it is a great victory," said Amicus General Secretary Roger Lyons.