This month, November, is Asbestos Awareness Month. A month which, true to its name, aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of asbestos products in our communities and why we have to be so careful of asbestos items.
Unfortunately, there is still a fair amount of asbestos in Queensland, particularly in older homes built before the mid-1980s which presents a real danger to the new wave of home renovators looking to get stuck into their DIY projects.
At Gouldson Legal we unfortunately see the life-changing impacts of asbestos exposure – from asbestosis to the malignant cancer mesothelioma. We sat down with our Senior Associate Carl Hughes, who is recognised as a leading Brisbane asbestos and dust diseases compensation lawyer, to ask him a few questions about his time working on these cases.
Thanks for sitting down with us Carl, let’s jump right in!
How long have you worked with those affected by Asbestos, and what is that work like?
I have worked with clients suffering asbestos related diseases since 2008, including when I worked for a different, national firm. After some time in the initial position I stepped into a role which saw me look after the Queensland Asbestos Litigation Department for a number of years.
Prior to this I was working in other personal injury claims areas but was offered to step into this work and I saw real potential to help these clients. It was a different field of work that offered its own challenges but also its own opportunity to help those who really needed assistance.
From the outset I found the work incredibly rewarding, but also very challenging and affecting at times. Where a client is suffering from a malignant asbestos-related disease, such as mesothelioma, many of the case related conversations occur within the hospital – typically bedside, with the client’s family present.
It’s never easy to see how an accident or injury has affected a client, but where the diagnosis is terminal, this is a very different experience – for the client, their family and myself as their lawyer.
What types of claims do you typically help your clients with?
This depends on how the client was exposed to the asbestos material and what their prognosis is.
Where a client is suffering a malignant condition, and they know this is a terminal diagnosis, the main focus is ensuring that any family they leave behind will be supported financially. This is typically the biggest concern for the client, knowing that their loved ones will be okay – at least financially.
Where the client is suffering a terminal condition and was exposed at work, we would typically proceed with a WorkCover Statutory Claim. This is something I assist the client and any dependants (such as their husband, wife or de-facto partner, and any dependent children or family members) with. Because of the terminal prognosis, these clients will typically be able to access the maximum amount under the scheme.
It’s never going to balance out their tragic loss, but this can often result in a considerable sum, for the terminal client and any dependents. The amount varies depending on the number of dependents etc., but can at least provide some financial security at a very difficult time.
Where the diagnosis is much more favourable, we may do the same or proceed with a common law claim. In every case we assess which option is best for the individual client and always proceed with what is going to result in more in the client’s pocket.
Where the client was exposed in a domestic situation, typically during renovations, we would proceed with a common law claim against the manufacturer. Hopefully in these instances we can establish what the material was and who was involved in manufacturing and distributing the materials. This is very much a forensic exercise.
Claims of this nature will always depend on how the client was exposed and what their diagnosis is.
Do you think these types of claims are slowing down/lessening?
The short answer is no. Unfortunately, studies show that we are in fact coming to a peak in these claims in the coming years.
While the work-related exposures and claims are lessening, we are seeing what is commonly known as the ‘third wave’ of asbestos exposure increasing. This refers to home renovators, people working in demolition, or generally living or working in areas where older asbestos may present a danger.
Often these are claims that involve domestic exposure, rather than work exposure. Many of these claims are linked to individuals and families who renovated their homes in the 70s and 80s, both before asbestos was no longer used and after its use was fully discontinued.
What’s the hardest thing about working on these claims?
Honestly, it’s finding a client you form a bond with and then watching them suffer through a malignant condition and eventually pass away.
Worse than this is when they are originally diagnosed with something non-malignant with a good prognosis and then watching them have the rug ripped out from under them with a malignant diagnosis later down the line. This happened to a client of mine. She was getting regular CT scans to keep an eye on her benign condition, within 6 months in they found something more and she was re-diagnosed with mesothelioma, the terminal asbestos-related disease.
Overall the hardest part is the deaths of your clients. To a degree you become more familiar with it, but you never get used to it, it is always deeply saddening to see.
What is your advice to anyone working with asbestos or who thinks they might have been exposed?
My first piece of advice is not to panic, not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos related condition.
It’s important to identify the materials you were exposed to and keep information on these. If this was at work, you should keep documentation about this exposure – when it occurred, how and who the employer was, as well as information about the material itself. Note down any identifying marks or logos of the manufacturer, take photos of the materials and retain any documents relating to this material.
Typically it can take anywhere from 20 to 40+ years for an asbestos related condition to develop, so keep whatever information you can and then don’t panic – it’s likely that you will never develop a condition, and if you do you will be armed with the information you need.