Law Lords ruling is upheld that symptomless condition is not compensatable, to relief of insurers

The government’s decision to give pleural plaque sufferers a one-off payment closes a Pandora’s Box of potential claims, experts said this week.

Justice secretary Jack Straw announced last week that the government will make a lump sum £5,000 payment to pleural plaques sufferers who had lodged but not resolved compensation claims before the October 2007 Law Lords ruling.

Straw backed the peers’ ruling that the existence of the plaques – small bunches of asbestos-related fibres found within the pleura of the lungs – were not grounds for compensation because they do not give rise to medical symptoms. The scheme will not apply to Scotland, where the Holyrood parliament has passed legislation to overturn the Lords ruling.

ABI director-general of general insurance and health Nick Starling said the ruling was “hugely important” for the insurance industry.

He said the decision safeguarded the principle that liability for damages should be based on harm and not negligence. “It upholds the fundamental legal principle that compensation is payable when someone suffers symptoms following negligence, but not for exposure to a risk alone.”

He added that the ruling also maintained the principle that legal decisions on damages should be determined by the courts and not parliament.

AXA Insurance’s claims managing director, David Williams, said: “The government has understood that pleural plaques are not an ailment that causes any symptoms, so it’s not appropriate that they should be compensated.”

Manager of the disease and industry claims unit at loss adjuster Garwyn, Neil Hackett, expressed relief that the government had finally grasped the nettle on the issue of plaques. “I hope that this will draw the line under the issue,” he said.

Both the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians have expressed their disappointment with the government’s announcement.

The move also makes it more likely that the two private members bills to overturn the Lords ruling, which are currently going through the Houses of Commons and Lords, will run into the sand because the passing of such legislation is heavily reliant on ministers’ goodwill. Baroness Quin’s Lords bill had its second reading on Wednesday.