Judge throws out seven industrial deafness test cases

The insurance industry's defeat of a series of industrial deafness claims this week could herald the end of potentially costly test cases, one of the insurers involved in the litigation has said.

The High Court this week threw out seven test cases which could have cost insurers millions of pounds had the claimants won. If successful, thousands of claimants were expected to come forward with retrospective claims each worth up to £63,000.

Zurich, QBE and Norwich Union were defending the cases, along with a self-insured company

The claims had been brought by former factory workers who argued they had become deaf due to potentially unacceptable levels of noise in textile, weaving and steel factories. They said their employers, Courtaulds, Coats Viyella and Pretty Polly, should have taken steps earlier to reduce the risk of damage to the workers' hearing.

The judge refused to accept that the majority of claimants had been deafened by noise generated by factory machines and that the defendants had failed to take steps to prevent the damage.

Zurich described the ruling as "a tremendous victory" and a "judgment for common sense".

Steve Thomas, UK general insurance technical manager at Zurich, said: "Claimant lawyers have tried to retrospectively broaden an employer's duty of care and the judge has rejected this."

Thomas said the ruling could lead to the end of test case cases brought against the insurance industry.

He said: "Solicitors have been farming this claim for months and had thousands of potential claimants on its books. With no income from pleural plaque cases coming in they are testing every piece of legislation to see where claims can be made.

"Fortunately, they keep losing, and soon the after-the-event (ATE) underwriters will refuse to cover these cases."

A legal expenses expert said test cases would continue to be brought: "ATE underwriters will take each case on its merit. They will look at medical evidence, take evidence from multiple counsel and decide whether to cover."