A 77-year-old woman from Norfolk with asbestos-related terminal cancer has been awarded compensation from her employers after the High Court ruled she was exposed to deadly asbestos dust during her work as a funeral arranger.
Winifred Goldstone, known as Jill, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung, in April this year after working for over 40 years as a funeral arranger at Eric W Witton Funeral Services in Heacham, Norfolk.
In the High Court, judgment was given against her current employer Dignity Funerals Limited who took over the business in 1989 but continued to trade under the Witton name.
Winifred’s employment was transferred through TUPE to her new employers in 1989, which a judge ruled made them liable for the injury caused by negligent exposure to asbestos.
Winifred started work at Eric W Witton Funeral Services in 1975 originally as a secretary but she soon began to arrange funerals at the premises on Station Road in Heacham, which also contained a workshop for a building and carpentry business.
Winifred undertook secretarial work, including the accounts, for the funeral business and the building firm. She was also required to clean up the workshop, regularly sweeping up the dust from the workshop where materials containing asbestos were cut.
Winifred, whose office was next door to the workshop, was also exposed to asbestos as she had to walk through the workshop and the dust it generated to access the toilet.
According to an independent assessment of the building, asbestos was also present in the fabric of the building, including the walls, pipes and roofing.
In 1989 the business was sold to what is now Dignity Funerals Limited. The workshop was closed but Winifred continued in the building as a full time funeral arranger for the company. As the sole employee in the premises she continued to be responsible for cleaning it.
In December 2015, whilst still working as a funeral arranger for Dignity Funerals Limited, Winifred found she was becoming increasingly breathless.
In April 2016 she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an aggressive type of cancer which attacks the pleural lining of the lungs and is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos dust.
Winifred last worked for Dignity on 20 April 2016. She left after informing them about her diagnosis. According to her daughter, she has not heard from them since.
In his ruling Master Davison, the judge presiding in the case, found that Winifred was exposed to asbestos through two sources; the fabric of the building and the activities of the carpentry business. The latter being the most significant.
He found this exposure to be a clear breach of the hygiene standards of the day and in breach also of the Asbestos Regulations 1969 and the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987.
Dignity Funerals Limited argued that liability for Winifred’s mesothelioma remained with the carpentry business because that part of the business was not transferred to it in 1989.
However, the judge made clear that the liabilities transferred through TUPE included any injury caused by negligence or breach of statutory duty. He could not find a ‘bright line’ to distinguish between the two sides of the business which was taken over by Dignity Funerals Limited in 1989.
The judge also made clear that Winifred was exposed to asbestos through her employment as a funeral arranger, even if the carpentry business had been separate, her employment would still have seen her exposed to asbestos.
Harminder Bains from the industrial diseases team at law firm Leigh Day said: “My client has worked for 40 years in a job she loved, she has been required throughout that time to do much more than she was paid to do and for her troubles was negligently exposed to asbestos.
"We are pleased that the judge has ruled that the liabilities transferred to Dignity Funerals Limited when they took over the business in 1989. Dignity Funerals Limited refused to accept responsibility. It is only as a consequence of the court case, that compensation will now be awarded to Winifred.”
Winifred said: “Even though I am 77 years old, I very much enjoyed my job, it was my life. I knew all the local families they would often come and talk to me about funerals I had arranged for a family member years ago. I am devastated to have to give that up.”
The compensation award will be dealt with at a further hearing on 15th December 2016 at the Royal Courts of Justice.