Andrew William Maxwell v Keliston Marine

In a recent occupational disease case, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance reaffirmed the principle that a claimant need only prove that unsafe working conditions materially contributed to him contracting a disease. It is not necessary to show that it was the sole cause.

In Andrew William Maxwell v Keliston Marine, the Plaintiff was a tunnel worker who was exposed to vapours known as "TDI" during his course of work. He alleged that he developed asthma as a result of such exposure, although none of the other tunnel workers were affected. The Defendants disputed liability and causation. On the issue of causation, they contended that the Plaintiff had a long-standing history of rhinitis which could have triggered the development of asthma in the dusty, hot and humid conditions inside the tunnels even without any exposure to TDI. The court found against the Defendants on both liability and causation.

The court was not prepared to conclude that exposure to TDI caused the Plaintiff to develop asthma but it held that such exposure materially contributed to him developing asthma in that it acted with other triggers present in the tunnel environment. It was accepted by the court that he was particularly vulnerable, given his chronic rhinitis, to develop asthma but the thin skull rule applied, i.e. you must take your victim as you find him.

The court further commented that this was not a case where there were distinct and competing causes, and where each possible cause might have independently caused the injury complained of. This is, rather, a case of possible cumulative causes, where the court does not require proof that exposure to the TDI actually caused the onset of asthma. It would be sufficient if the evidence could lead to an inference being drawn that the exposure to TDI materially contributed to the damage complained of.

Comment

This judgment shows again that the courts do not require a scientific or clear-cut medical proof of causation. The claimant only needs to show that the matters complained of materially contributed to the onset of injury or disease. It is a lower standard of proof.