Victims of respiratory diseases have until 23 February 2018 to register for British Steel group action
18 October 2017: Former British Steel workers suffering from life-limiting and debilitating respiratory diseases (including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, temporary exacerbation of asthma and lung cancer) and squamous cell skin cancer have until 23 February 2018 to register to join the group taking legal action against the company.
The group action comes after hundreds developed these conditions which are alleged to have been caused by exposure to harmful fumes while working at coking plants in the immediate vicinity of the coke ovens.
The deadline, which was set by the High Court this week, follows its approval of a group litigation order (GLO) in January 2017, which was presented by specialist industrial disease lawyers from Hugh James, based in Cardiff, and Irwin Mitchell. The GLO was applied for after these firms were approached by more than 340 former coke oven workers suffering health problems related to their employment years ago. A large proportion of these, over 50%, lived in Wales.
Insurers for British Steel have already admitted it was in breach of its duty owed to its employees from 1947 until appropriate respiratory protection was provided to the workforce.
Since the High Court gave approval for the group claim in January 2017, more than 80 former workers in Wales have come forward to potentially join the group action, putting the total number of applicants in Wales at over 200.
Lawyers are urging people affected to contact them before the deadline on the 23 February 2018 to make sure they don’t miss out on access to justice. After this date, people won’t be able to bring a claim as part of the group action.
Kathryn Singh, Partner and industrial disease specialist at Hugh James which is handling cases in Wales, said: “The approval of the Group Litigation Order in January 2017 was a further important step in achieving justice for former British Steel workers. The High Court decision helped to raise awareness of the problem of coke oven-related illnesses, and as a result many more former workers in Wales have come forward to pursue compensation for the devastating illnesses they have suffered.
“As is common in group litigation, we are ordered by the High Court to ensure people who may have been affected know about the litigation and have an opportunity to come forward before the court ordered deadline on the 23 February 2018.
“However, there are undoubtedly more victims out there, including those who may now have moved to other parts of Wales from the areas where they used to work. It is important that people are aware that claims can also be investigated on behalf of the estate of former deceased workers. We urge anyone affected to contact us urgently for free advice and for their case to be considered before the closing date of the group register on 23 February 2018. We hope that this group action will pave the way for redress for those whose lives have been severely affected by devastating illnesses”
Former workers at sites in Wales, Scotland, the North East, Yorkshire and Derbyshire have all come forward to join the claim. Hugh James represents clients who are former workers who worked at sites including East Moors, Ebbw Vale, Llanwern, Port Talbot and Shotton.
Roger Maddocks, a Partner and expert industrial disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “The approval of the GLO by the High Court, and the admission of liability, were extremely important milestones and moved the victims and their families a further step closer to securing the justice they deserve concerning the exposure to harmful fumes decades ago at a number of coking plants around the UK.
“The workers we represent, through no fault of their own, developed serious, and in some cases fatal, respiratory illnesses and lung cancers causing them unnecessary pain and suffering when they should be enjoying their later life with their families.
“Nothing can turn back the clock but this legal action will hopefully provide them with the help, support and treatments needed to make dealing with their illness more comfortable.
“However, with the Court now setting this deadline for workers to sign up, we would urge anyone else who feels they were affected by the working conditions at British Steel to come forward so that they too can join the group action and ensure they do not miss out on the justice they deserve.”
The Group Litigation Order
In July 2016 the Senior Master of the High Court heard an application for a Group Litigation Order brought on behalf of more than 340 former steelworkers who worked at 20 steelworks in England and Wales from the 1940s to the present day. The application for a GLO was approved by the president of the High Court in January 2017.
Carcinogenic coke oven emissions are linked to the development of cancers and respiratory diseases and many of these workers are now suffering from these conditions or have sadly suffered from these conditions and have since died. Hugh James is representing all claimants in Wales, as well as English claimants. The basis for the GLO is that employers allegedly failed to protect employees from occupational exposure to dust and fumes in the steelworks’ coking plants. The initial letter of claim was sent to Tata Steel in July 2013. On the eve of the GLO hearing in July 2016 an important admission of breach of duty owed to the coke oven workers was made by the insurers acting for British Steel.
A group litigation order enables a group of cases to be considered on the basis of a selection of test cases, the judgments in which then act as a guide in the resolution of other cases within the group. It provides for efficient management of litigation by an appointed High Court Judge, in this case Mr Justice Turner, and avoids satellite litigation in multiple courts across the country.
The Welsh context
Around 200 Welsh claimants from East Moors, Ebbw Vale, Llanwern, Port Talbot and Shotton steelworks are part of the total number making up the GLO, while more Welsh claimants are likely to come forward.
It is extremely important for those who think that they have a claim, or believe they may be able to bring a claim on behalf of a relative who has since died to come forward quickly as bringing a claim after the register is closed will be difficult, if not impossible.
All potential claims are assessed and those whose claims are considered to have merit would then join the group register of claimants to form a single, collective court case.
The court would set the appropriate date for the trial, which would be a matter of years rather than months given the scale of the litigation and amount of evidence to be considered. Despite the important and generic admission of breach of duty, there remain a number of issues in dispute.
This GLO follows rulings in a test case in October 2012 related to British Coal’s operation of a Phurnacite plant in south Wales where Hugh James represented 183 ex-workers and families of ex-workers.
It was ruled that British Coal had failed to protect workers against inhalation of coke dust and fumes, with protection only being introduced in 1981 after workers had been exposed for a number of decades.
Former coke oven workers also became entitled to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in August 2012, after a paper from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in September 2011 found the risk of contracting lung cancer increased significantly where employees had spent specific periods of time working on the coke oven tops and coke oven sides.
In parallel litigation Hugh James and Irwin Mitchell have been appointed lead solicitors in a GLO on behalf of workers and families of former workers of coking plants owned and operated by British Coal. That litigation is more advanced and the group register for that case closed by order of the court in 2016. The trial in that litigation is due to be heard in the High Court in June and July 2018.