James Hardie – the asbestos company that has already killed thousands of Australians and will kill many more well into the future – is back in the news today, with a landmark trial set to get underway in Brisbane this morning.
The case – the first of its kind to go to trial in Queensland in more than two decades – is being run by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. Syd Lacey, a 73-year-old retiree suffering from terminal mesothelioma, is suing James Hardie after being exposed to their products while working as a carpenter in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.
Maurice Blackburn Principal Jonathan Walsh, who specialises in dust disease law, said the case was, amongst other things, seeking damages for Mr Lacey’s lost capacity to act as a long term, around-the-clock carer for his sick wife, who is deaf and suffers from severe epilepsy.
In addition, the case would also serve as an important legal test in seeking damages in Queensland for pain and suffering and the reckless indifference shown by James Hardie to consumers in selling products containing asbestos, despite the known serious health risks posed.
James Hardie mined and manufactured building products containing asbestos (such as fibro sheeting), and suppressed scientific evidence for decades which showed its products were deadly. It was eventually forced to set up a compensation scheme for victims, but underfunded it then shifted its company operations offshore to try and escape further liability.
“This is a tragic case, that if successful will set a precedent for mesothelioma damages in Queensland,” Mr Walsh said.
“It is also the first case of its kind to go to trial in Queensland in over 20 years.
“For almost two decades our client Syd has been the primary carer for his wife of forty years Marion. Syd himself is also profoundly deaf, and since his diagnosis of mesothelioma in March 2017 has undergone several gruelling chemotherapy treatment regimens – treatment that is necessary to prolong his life for as long as possible.
“Sadly, his disease will ultimately stop him from caring for his wife and take his life.
“Whilst James Hardie has conceded they are liable for Syd’s asbestos exposure, they have refused to accept that Marion requires 24 hour care and that Syd will lose his ability to care for her around-the-clock.
“Syd’s inability to continue caring for his wife is going to have a significant impact on both their lives, and it is very important to him that he has the financial means to make sure that his wife can be cared for.”
Syd Lacey’s case is set down for trial for four days in the Brisbane Supreme Court, and is seeking $5.9 million in damages from Amaca Pty Ltd (formerly James Hardie).
The bulk of the damages being sought in the claim are to compensate for Syd’s lost ability to provide long term care and support for his wife Marion.
“This case is also seeking exemplary damages – damages that recognise James Hardie’s reckless indifference in continuing to sell the asbestos products that caused Syd’s illness, despite knowing these products could kill.
“If that aspect of Syd’s case is successful it will set an important legal precedent for future Queensland asbestos sufferers and their families seeking compensation, as currently there is no precedent for James Hardie or other defendants to have pay such damages in Queensland.
“Syd’s great hope is that by bringing this case he can help not only his own family, but also help other sufferers to have the ability to seek damages they are entitled to for the harm caused by asbestos products they should never have been exposed to,” he said.
Australia enforced a complete ban asbestos just over a decade ago, thanks in large part to a sustained campaign by unions seeking to protect workers. But the product is still sold around the world, in particular in developing nations where – like ‘Big Tobacco’ – asbestos companies rush to flood the market in expectation of worldwide restrictions or a possible ban.
Asbestos has been the subject of a major ongoing investigation by New Matilda, after it was revealed a Kazahkstan asbestos company had hired a spy to pose as a journalist and infiltrate anti-asbestos activist networks, including in Australia.
Australia has the second highest asbestos death rate in the world (behind the UK). It can take decades for the disease to emerge after exposure. The number of Australia’s mesothelioma cases in Australia is expected to peak around 2020, at at least 18,000.
Recent research presented to the annual Asbestos Diseases Awareness Organisation conference in the US reported that globally, around a quarter of a million people die every year as a result of asbestos exposure, double previous estimates.
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