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Mesothelioma Claims – A History of Asbestos Exposure & International Workers Memorial Day

International Workers Memorial Day was first brought to the UK in 1992, by the late great Hazards Campaigner, Tommy Harte as a day to “Remember the Dead: Fight for the Living.” On the 28th April every year we come together to remember those who have lost their lives to work, and renew our commitment to fight for the living and make work safe. 1992 was also the year that I started my legal career and as we reflect on those we have lost through work, I was reminded of one of the first asbestos cases I worked on, all those years ago.

Asbestos exposure and Turner & Newall (T&N)

I have been acting for asbestos victims and their families since I first started my legal career. One of the first cases I assisted on was for a widow Annie, whose husband Joseph, had died of mesothelioma following his exposure to asbestos as a 14 year old in the 1930’s when he briefly worked for Turner Asbestos Cement (TAC), part of the Turner & Newall Group, in their factory in Widnes.

Turner & Newall was founded in 1871 in Rochdale and was the first company in the United Kingdom to weave asbestos fibres into cloth, as a result, they saw growing success and changed the company name to Turner Brothers Asbestos Company in 1879.

The company continued to expand its offering and its reach into other industries, opening an asbestos cement manufacturing plant in Trafford Park before World War I. This plant developed one of their most well-known products, Trafford tile asbestos cement sheets. Thanks to their expansion, Turner Brothers Asbestos Company merged with Washington Chemical Company, Newall’s Insulation Company and J. W. Roberts in 1920. With the merger, the company changed its name to Turner & Newall.

Despite taking asbestos out of the company’s name, Turner & Newall remained committed to utilizing the toxin in their manufacturing process. They continued to expand their product line and increased the number of factories to meet demand. The company had asbestos manufacturing factories in Trafford Park, Widnes, Erith, Rhoose, Tamworth, Ditton, Ballyclare in Northern Ireland, Chapel–en–le-Firth, Caernarvon, Wellingborough, Rochdale, Hindley Green, Washington and County Durham.

By this point, the dangers of asbestos were becoming better known. In 1955, a study was conducted in Rochdale that proved the link between asbestos and cancer. Turner & Newall did not want the study to become public and eventually had their own scientist publish a paper to discredit the study.

By 1973, the company had 9 principal manufacturing subsidiaries in the UK. Despite the rising health concerns around the use of asbestos, and the growing number of workers developing diseases and speaking out, Turner & Newall continued to use the mineral in production until the 1980s. Around this time, the company began to see a decline and was later purchased by an American company, Federal-Mogul, in 1998.

Because of their widespread and consistent asbestos use in their products, Turner & Newall is noted as having been one of the largest asbestos conglomerates in the world.

Asbestos related death

So back to Annie…You would have thought that a claim for an asbestos related death on behalf of a widow of a former employee of an asbestos manufacturing company would have been straight forward. Sadly this was not the case.

Turner and Newall, fought us tooth and nail. At that point in time they seemed to have no limit to the resources they were prepared to utilise to fight asbestos claims. They began by arguing that the exposure had occurred so long ago that they could not have known of the dangers of asbestos. You will recall I said that Annie’s husband Joseph, had worked for T& N in the 1930’s, he had worked there from about 1931 until 1933. Fortunately, the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931 came into force on 1st March 1932 and despite T& N arguing that he had left their employment before these regulations came into force, and despite a lack of documents, Annie was able to prove that Joseph had still been working there in 1932 as this was when she had met him.

The case was fixed for trial when a matter of months before the trial was due to commence, T&N obtained permission from the court to re-amend their Defence to argue that whilst they admitted that Joseph had worked at the Widnes factory from age 14 for about 2 years from 1931- 1933, that he was exposed to asbestos at the factory and that he died of mesothelioma; they claimed that chrysotile, white asbestos, was harmless and could not cause mesothelioma and alleged that at the time when Joseph had worked there they only used white asbestos at the TAC factory in Widnes.
At this time 1996/97 T&N together with other asbestos manufacturers were actively lobbying various Governments to declare that White Asbestos was safe. To this day there is still no worldwide ban on its use, and it was during this period that campaign groups were calling for a UK ban.

We had no option but to seek an adjournment of the trial to enable us to gather the evidence we required to challenge this Defence. Sadly, Annie passed away when the trial was adjourned, as if she had been hanging on for the court date but could not hold on any longer. The fight was taken over by the adult children, who felt as did I, that T&N should not be allowed to get away with this.
T&N’s shameful tactics continued, in support of their argument that they only used white asbestos at the Widnes factory in the period 1931 – 1933 they disclosed a warehouse full of documents. I had to attend their premises in Trafford Park to inspect the documents personally and to try to find some evidence to challenge the Defence. I had no idea what I was looking for or where to start.

How harmful are the different types of asbestos?

Nowadays, thankfully the whole “White asbestos is harmless” debate is purely academic as it has been proven that there is no such thing as pure white asbestos as it is all contaminated at source with Tremolite, an amphibole asbestos that can cause mesothelioma. However back then this was very much a live issue and one which based on the science of the day, we could not win in court.
Our medical expert, a titan in asbestos cases at the time, Dr A John Robertson, advised me to contact a colleague of his who was a retired Chief Medical Officer to HM Inspector of factories, Dr Browne. He gave evidence at the subsequent 5 day trial in the County Court in Liverpool that at least one of the products the Widnes factory was making at the time required blue or brown asbestos adding to the mix in order to strengthen it or speed up the setting process. After a reserved Judgment we won and not long afterwards the so called “white asbestos is safe” campaign also failed.

I mentioned earlier that an American company, Federal-Mogul purchased Turner & Newall, but it was quickly overwhelmed with asbestos claims. As a result, Turner & Newall filed for bankruptcy in 2001. A trust fund was formed to compensate asbestos victims, but at a fraction of what they could have received from the courts. Asbestos was finally banned in the United Kingdom, in 1999.

Asbestos claims in 2022

Thirty years on and I have successfully acted for hundreds of asbestos victims and their families whose lives have changed as a result of a mesothelioma or asbestos related lung cancer diagnosis. I would like to say that the sort of tactics the Defendants used in my first asbestos trial do not arise today but sadly, this is not the case. There seems to be no depth to which the insurance industry will not sink in an attempt to avoid compensating victims and their families, but I’m always ready to take them on to get to the truth and help those severely affected by this dangerous mineral to gain the justice they deserve.

Our specialist Asbestos Team has decades of experience in dealing with many asbestos disease claims. Do not hesitate to contact us on 0808 163 4331 if you would like to discuss your asbestos related disease.