24.7.09

Local authority liable to former pupil who contracted mesothelioma following likely exposure to asbestos dust from ceiling tiles.

Between 1972 and 1979, Dianne Willmore had been a pupil at a local authority run secondary school known as Page Moss Comprehensive School.

In 2007 Mrs Willmore was diagnosed as having malignant mesothelioma of the pleura (lining of the lung), a latent and fatal cancer commonly associated with asbestos exposure. In 2008, a newspaper reported that asbestos had been used extensively throughout the school and that in 2002 amosite (brown asbestos) had been found in ceiling tiles.

Mrs Willmore recalled that, during the period she was a pupil at the school, workmen had removed ceiling tiles in order to carry out electrical work in ceiling voids. Further, she recalled broken or damaged ceiling tiles being stored in the school’s toilets and pupils mischievously hiding other pupils’ property in the ceiling void.

The Council admitted that at all material times it knew or should have known that more than minimal exposure to asbestos was a foreseeable health hazard but sought to argue that the exposure described by Mrs Willmore was de minimis and thus did not materially contribute to her illness.

Held: Mr Justice Nicol, sitting in Liverpool, found that:

  • The ceiling tiles in the school contained amosite.
  • The area in which the electrical work was undertaken could and should have been isolated.  
  • The broken or damaged tiles could and should have been stored somewhere other than in the girls’ toilets, where they would not have constituted a risk to pupils.  
  • The school’s staff ought to have been alert to the misbehaviour of pupils who hid the belongings of others in ceiling cavities.  
  • During the material period, the Council ought to have been aware of the risks posed by disturbed asbestos and should have considered replacing damaged ceiling tiles with asbestos-free tiles.  

On this basis the Council was found to be liable to Mrs Willmore. Damages had previously been agreed in the sum of £240,000 gross.

Comment: Asbestos and asbestos building products were used extensively in the construction of public buildings, including schools, throughout the 1950s and up until the early 1970s. In those schools where it existed, such asbestos commonly remained in place until it was removed during the 1980s. Mrs Willmore is unlikely to have been the only school pupil to have been exposed to asbestos and so there are likely to be other “school days” exposure claims in the future.

Mesothelioma can be caused by relatively low dose exposure to asbestos (and in particular to blue and brown asbestos). Therefore, on the basis of this judgment, unless exposure was de minimis it should be regarded as having made a material contribution (thus satisfying the Fairchild test).

Any future mesothelioma claim by a former pupil of a school will fall to be dealt with under a local authority’s public liability policy. Depending on policy wording, Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council v Municipal Mutual Insurance Ltd and another [2006] may apply.