This week the UK government published a consultation paper seeking the views of interested parties on what should be done in relation to compensation for those who have developed pleural plaques.
Following a House of Lords ruling in October 2007, those who have developed pleural plaques (an almost invariably symptomless and harmless scarring of the lining of the lung caused by asbestos exposure) are not entitled to compensation. For more than two decades before this decision, English law had recognised a right to compensation.
The paper estimates that as many as 1.25 million people in the UK – far more than previously assumed - could be diagnosed as having pleural plaques and that the cost of restoring the legal right to compensation would be at least £3.5 billion ($7 billion) and could be as much as £28 billion ($56 billion). The government has stressed the various uncertainties that produce this wide range.
The paper states that, give the complexity of the issues and strength of the House of Lords' unanimous ruling, there would need to be strong reasons to overturn the Law Lords' decision. Corporate defendants and their insurers can probably be cautiously optimistic that this indicates that the government is unlikely to introduce legislation to restore the right to seek compensation through the courts.
The government proposes a number of other options, notably no-fault compensation schemes paying out a fixed amount (tentatively set at £5,000) to anyone who could show that they have been diagnosed with pleural plaques following workplace exposure to asbestos. These proposals are vague on the question of who would fund the schemes. The paper appears to come out against the introduction of any such scheme.
Responses to the paper must be submitted by 1 October.