Long-running legal battles moves into final stages

Norwich Union (NU) and Zurich have drawn the battle lines and yesterday appeared in the House of Lords to argue that pleural plaques is not a compensable disease.

It is the final hurdle in a dispute between trade unions, claimant solicitors and insurers, which has spanned several years and worked its way up through the Court of Appeal.

Since 1985 employees who were negligently exposed to asbestos were given the right to make a claim for pleural plaques. Pleural plaques attach themselves to the lungs and are believed to be caused by exposure to asbestos. They are symptomless, have no adverse effect on any bodily function and, being internal, have no effect on appearance.

That decision was overruled in January 2006 by the Court of Appeal. The board of judges, however, were not unanimous in their decision and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips gave the claimants leeway to pursue the case to the House of Lords.

Since the case was originally brought government has worked furiously to reform the personal injury compensation system. The Department for Work and Pensions has set new protocols for dealing with mesothelioma claims. This has undoubtedly raised the issue of asbestosis-related diseases up the political agenda in the House of Lords.

Insurers argue that as pleural plaques have no medical impact on the body it should not be compensable. If NU and Zurich loose at the House of Lords it could cost the industry an estimated £1.5bn in the next 25 to 30 years.

There are further concerns that success by those suffering pleural plaques could have serious ramifications for the entire personal injury system as more people attempt to bring claims despite no physical evidence of injury.

Claimant solicitors, backed by the trade union Amicus, say that there is a higher incidence of mesothelioma in individuals with pleural plaques, and it is the fear of knowing that fact which should be compensable.

This will be another long journey for NU and Zurich, which are both confident of a win at the House of Lords. But in October, when that decision is expected to be made, if the ruling goes against the industry it could jeopardise all the work which has been done to make the compensation system more effective for claimants.