Stacey v Triplex Safety glass Co. Ltd  EWHC 1945 (QB) was a claim for fatal pleural thickening, heard before Master McCloud in the High Court, in which the court determined that the pleural thickening suffered by the deceased, after his exposure to asbestos, was the cause of his death, rather than his death being caused by a general decline in health.
The deceased developed pleural thickening caused by negligent exposure to asbestos, when he worked as a carpenter and maintenance operative. In the two years prior to his death, his health deteriorated rapidly and he suffered worsening breathing problems.
The deceased was in his mid-eighties when he died. The parties disagreed as to whether the deceased died as a result of his asbestos-related disease or whether the cause of death was a form of general decline in his health, following the death of his wife. The parties agreed that the final cause of death was bronchopneumonia.
The claimant’s case was that the general decline in health was due to recurring episodes of pneumonia, ultimately resulting in chronic organising pneumonia causing his death, and that those episodes had resulted from asbestos exposure causing pleural thickening, lung folding and traction bronchiectasis.
The defendant's case, based on its expert's view, was that while the deceased passed away with the ultimate cause of death being pneumonia, the real cause was general decline in health. It was submitted that there was no evidence of recurring past episodes of pneumonia and there was no acceleration in date of death due to the asbestos-related injury.
The court found that the claimant’s serious lung condition and the progress of that disease was the cause of death.
It was found that the claimant died as a result of having suffered asbestos exposure which caused diffuse pleural thickening, folding of the lung and bronchiectasis, which rendered him prone not only to disabling breathlessness, but which led to bouts of pneumonia and in particular the chronic "organising" type of pneumonia described by the claimant’s expert. The court’s finding had the benefit of being the most efficient and reasonable given the factual evidence: the finding did not require the introduction of the vague concept of "general decline" separately from a specific disease driver. It also matched the post mortem findings of the lung changes predicted on the organising pneumonia hypothesis and it benefited from the basic a priori point of inherent likelihood, starting from the uncontroversial position that the deceased certainly did suffer from a significant degree of disability in the final years of his life due to breathlessness attributable to pleural thickening.
What this means for you
As a first instance decision this will have little bearing on other high court matters, save as perhaps persuasive precedent. However, it does rather suggest that judges, when faced with a choice between attributing death will prefer the most ‘parsimonious’ (to use Master McCloud’s words) or efficient and straightforward cause. In this case the claimant was clearly and seriously affected by the pleural thickening. But in cases where the cause is less clear cut it remains open to dispute the cause of death.