Asbestos ruling a relief for widows
A 2006 High Court victory for asbestos victims and their families has paved the way for hundreds of others to receive compensation of $100,000 or more.
It was a battle no one wanted to fight, but those who were dying from asbestos-related illnesses, and the widows who were left with nothing, were determined to secure lump-sum payments when they fought ACC in 2006.
It wouldn't bring their husbands back, or keep them alive, but the money was a small comfort when faced with a disease that usually doesn't present itself until 20 to 60 years after exposure, and can kill within months.
Three widows who took the High Court case not only secured the payments for themselves and 30 others at the time of the decision, but 537 people have since been paid more than $100,000 in lump-sum payments for “whole person impairment”, and close to $100 million has been paid in asbestos-related claims.
Nothing will replace the hole left in Dawn Lehmann's life after her husband Ross was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died less than a year later.
But the 84-year-old Aucklander takes comfort in knowing the fight was worth it. “Thankfully for me and for the other people that followed it was successful. But it doesn't make up for it.”
Her son John says they should never have had to fight in the first place.
Like so many others, Ross Lehmann had no idea the asbestos he had worked with would come back to haunt him in retirement.
The engineer died in 2003 after securing $100,000 from ACC for a work-related disease, but ACC appealed, and won.
After spending thousands in court, Dawn Lehmann risked having to return the money she used to help her travel to hospital to be with Ross before his death.
But the 2006 case, which was taken up by other asbestos widows, secured the payments, and hundreds of claims started pouring in.
“I felt I was fighting over bones, but it was a principle, because we knew there were many others from his generation who were exposed to this stuff,” John Lehmann said.
One of those was Peter Kohing, a former Wellington primary school principal who died in 2010 of mesothelioma. It was while working as a teacher that he was twice exposed to asbestos. He was one of those to benefit from the lump-sums Lehmann and widows Dorris Priddle, Lyn Soeters and Juanita Angell were all determined to secure.
“These people were put at risk, and it was a known risk, because it was concealed from the public,” John Lehmann said. “It was a form of industrial genocide.”
Warnings about the dangers of asbestos began appearing in New Zealand in the 1930s.
“The fibres produce a deadly pulmonary disease,” a 1938 health report said.
“The dust can be expected to cause a certain amount of lung damage unless proper precautions are taken,” said another, in 1951.
But asbestos continued to be used, and working men would breathe in the fibres, unaware of the danger. Their families would also be exposed when the men went home.
Even now, New Zealanders are still being exposed, as old homes are demolished.
The World Health Organisation has recognised asbestos is one of the most important carcinogens, and that about 100,000 people from 83 countries have died from mesothelioma since 1994.
As well as mesothelioma, which usually claims lives within two years, asbestos exposure can lead to asbestosis and lung abnormalities.
In New Zealand, 1080 mesothelioma cases have been documented since 1954, and more than 17,000 people have registered with the Department of Labour as having possibly being exposed to asbestos.
Those diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness are usually elderly, European men. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians make up 67 per cent of all cases presented since 1992. But thousands of others, whose lung cancer has been put down to smoking, might also have suffered, the department has said in the past.
The misdiagnosed are not the only ones missing out, says Wellington lawyer John Miller, who fought and won the 2006 case.
People whose cancer gradually progresses need to be constantly assessed or they won't receive compensation, while families told a deceased loved one had an asbestos-related disease only after it showed up in autopsy results, are not entitled to anything, he says.
And then there are those like Deidre van Gurven, who's husband Tom died of mesothelioma in 1998. The lump-sum payments only apply to those diagnosed after April, 2002.
“It's cruel. Nobody should die from an asbestos-related disease ever, because it's just greed that caused it,” the Masterton resident says. Van Gurven set up a website after her husband's death and often hears stories from around the world about asbestos.
A lump sum would have meant she and Tom could have spent their last weeks together at a bach near the sea, rather than with him in hospital and her stressing about paying for the petrol to visit him.
She doesn't want to see others in a similar situation and says anyone who thinks they might have been exposed must get checked, rechecked, then checked again.
BY THE NUMBERS
More than 17,000 people registered as having possibly being exposed to asbestos
At least 1000 New Zealand and 100,000 worldwide mesothelioma deaths
More than $100 million in asbestos-related claims paid out by ACC since 2006 Carpenters, builders and electricians among those most likely to have been exposed
- © Fairfax NZ News
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