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Asbestos Exposure in Naval Dockyard - Waters Muddied by Passage of Time

Asbestos-related cancer commonly develops many years after exposure and that can cause real difficulties in discerning where legal responsibility lies. That was certainly so in the case of a dockyard worker who was said to have breathed in asbestos fibres during the fitting out of newly built Royal Navy warships.

Prior to his death at the age of 82 from mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer almost invariably associated with asbestos, the man lodged a compensation claim against the dockyard's owner and operating company. He alleged that his illness arose from exposure to asbestos whilst working on the filtration systems of at least two warships, including a nuclear submarine, between 1969 and 1975.

Following his death, his widow continued to pursue his claim. Without making any admission of liability, the company settled her claim at a cost, in damages and legal costs, in excess of £190,000. The company launched further proceedings seeking a contribution to that outlay from an employer whom the man worked for at the dockyard in the mid-1970s.

Ruling on the matter, the High Court noted that, due to the passage of so many years, no work records existed to show what he was doing, and where or when, during the relevant period. The evidence he gave prior to his death was of limited value in that he was describing events more than 40 years ago. He succumbed to his illness soon after making his witness statement and his evidence, which contained a number of factual errors, could not be tested in court.

In the light of expert evidence and records of work carried out on the warships at the time, the Court found that the most likely period in which he was exposed to asbestos at the dockyard was in the early 1970s. Given that he was not working for the employer at that time, the company's contribution claim was dismissed.

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