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High Court Analyses Link Between Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure

Despite the powerful statistical link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs, it cannot be assumed that the one invariably causes the other. The High Court made that point in a guideline case of interest to social housing, health and safety and personal injury professionals.

The case concerned a woman who died at the age of 51 from bronchopneumonia. It was undisputed that the condition resulted from malignant mesothelioma. She had lived for many years in a local authority-owned property which was known to have contained asbestos during the early years of her tenancy.

Following an inquest, a coroner entered a narrative verdict in which she found, on the balance of probabilities, that the woman had been exposed to asbestos whilst living in the property and that it was that exposure which caused her mesothelioma and, ultimately, her death.

Upholding the local authority's challenge to that verdict, the Court noted that the statistical association between mesothelioma and exposure to asbestos fibres is extremely strong – but it is by no means absolute. The coroner had fallen into the error of confusing statistical probability with the standard of proof she was required to apply to the case – the balance of probabilities.

Although the woman's illness was certainly consistent with asbestos exposure, the evidence before the coroner established no more than a possibility that such exposure took place whilst she was in the property. Asbestos was relatively commonplace during the relevant period and it could not safely be assumed that she had never been exposed to it elsewhere.

Overall, the coroner's verdict was unsupported by the available evidence. The Court deleted offending passages from the narrative verdict and inserted a straightforward finding that the woman died from malignant mesothelioma.

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