Breakthrough in Occupational Disease Recognition in Turkey
A landmark ruling was handed down by Turkeys Supreme Court which continues to reverberate around the country. The verdict of the 10th Civil Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals at the end of last year (December 2021) recognized the right of a surviving family to receive compensation for a death of a loved one caused by occupational exposure to asbestos. This decision took a decade to achieve and necessitated legal proceedings in multiple courts due to a fierce battle by state bodies and former employers to avoid liability. Although the full opinion of the Court has not yet been made public, the family of the deceased is now progressing a claim for 250,000 liras (~US$18,000) against the Social Security Institution [Sosyal Güvenlik Kurumu (SGK)] and Turkish Maritime Enterprises for material and moral damages.1
On May 30, 2012, more than two decades after bad health had forced him to retire from Istanbuls Camialtı Shipyard where he had worked from 1974 until 1990 as a first class electric welder,2 Zafer Genç died from mesothelioma. Three years earlier, he had been admitted to an Istanbul Thoracic Hospital with pain in his left side and shortness of breath; after a series of tests, a diagnosis of mesothelioma, the signature cancer associated with asbestos exposures, was made.
On March 23, 2012 Mr. Genç applied to the Beyoğlu Social Security Directorate for an incapacity pension due to ill health submitting a report from Istanbuls Occupational Diseases Hospital confirming that his illness was an occupational disease caused by exposure to toxic asbestos fibers. This application was rejected. A subsequent application to the Supreme Health Board was also rejected.
In 2016, a lawsuit was filed by Mr. Gençs widow, Aysel Genç and his son Mustafa Zafer Genç with Istanbuls 20th Labor Court which was asked to confirm that Mr. Gençs 2012 death had been the result of his exposure to hazardous workplace conditions. In 2019, the local court found that Mr. Gençs death had indeed been caused by an occupational disease. The defendants appeal to the 33rd Civil Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice was rejected. An appeal was then lodged by the defendants with the Supreme Court.
A report dated June 7, 2017 by the Board of Forensic Medicine reported that the deceased had been exposed to asbestos during his employment as an electrician and as a result of that exposure he had contracted mesothelioma. In a subsequent report dated April 26, 2018, medical specialists stated that the cause of Zafer Genç's death from mesothelioma should be recognized as occupational exposure to asbestos.
In December 2021, the 10th Civil Chamber of the Court of Cassation (Turkeys Supreme Court), concluded that there had been no inaccuracy in the appraisal of the material evidence by the court of the first instance and rejected the appellants arguments.
Background to the Case
Although Turkey officially added asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural diseases to its national list of occupational diseases in 1972, by 2013 not one case of asbestos-related death had been recognized and as of this year (2022) not one court verdict had been achieved acknowledging the liability of an employer for causing a worker’s death due to an asbestos-related disease, in this case mesothelioma.3
According to health and safety campaigners, the lack of accurate government statistics on occupational diseases means they are totally invisible in Turkey. Using World Health Organization data, it has been estimated that there are 360,000 cases of occupational disease every year in Turkey and yet data in 2016 from the Turkish Social Security Institution (SGK) noted only 597 people had been diagnosed with an occupational disease that year. Officially, said Turkish Campaigner Asli Odman, no one dies of work-related diseases in Turkey. Considering the lack of medical capacity and the bureaucratic hurdles that exist, it is little wonder that workers are reluctant to be diagnosed with occupational diseases.4
Significance of the Zafer Genç Case
That the decision of the Supreme Court was ground-breaking cannot be denied. As a result of the ruling, a compensation case against the defendants can now proceed. Welcoming the legal victory, the familys lawyer Sinem Ezgi Büyükyıldız bemoaned the tortuous process and long delays the family had encountered:
I wish there was a shorter-term process for all of us. Let's hope that the judicial system can move faster from now on. People shouldn't wait for 5 years. This is a very long time for all of us There was no such decision [before] in Turkey regarding mesothelioma. There is now.
It has been almost a decade since Mr. Gençs death and still the negligent public company which caused it and the institution which should have supported him during his illness continue to fight tooth and nail to contest all attempts by the family to obtain restitution. One can but hope that the next court case will finally achieve justice for the Genç family and that other claimants will benefit from the precedent their legal action set.
March 4, 2022
1 Emsal karar: Yargıtay 19 yıl sonra meslek hastalığı dedi [Precedent decision: The Supreme Court ruled occupational disease after 19 years]. February 27, 2022.
2 Yargıtay 10 yıl önce ölen işçinin meslek hastalığını kabul etti [The Supreme Court accepted the occupational disease of the worker who died 10 years ago]. February 25, 2022.
Mezotelyoma ilk kez meslek hastalığı olarak kabul edildi [Mesothelioma recognized as an occupational disease for the first time]. February 28, 2022.
4 #IWMD19 special report: Making work-related murders visible in Turkey. Hazards, number 145, 2019.