Legal Breakthroughs for Asbestos Victims in Spain
Last week, developments in Spain revealed a seismic shift in the landscape for asbestos victims who had, until fairly recently, been largely ignored as a result of restrictive government protocols and obstructive judicial practices. The human costs of Spains love affair with asbestos went unacknowledged for decades and even now asbestos-related diseases remain woefully underreported.1 The incorporation of 3 million tonnes of asbestos within the national infrastructure during the 20th century constitutes an imminent hazard in the 21st. Deadly fibers inhaled as a result of occupational, domestic or environmental exposures remain within the lungs of Spanish citizens, their homes, public buildings and liberally distributed throughout the urban and rural landscapes. No one knows how much asbestos has been remediated but technical experts believe the vast majority remains in place.2
On March 15, 2021 Spains Supreme Court confirmed the right to financial compensation for asbestos injuries to people who had lived near Uralitas asbestos factory in Cerdanyola del Vallés (Barcelona) and rejected an appeal by the defendant against a verdict handed down by the Provincial Court of Madrid which had recognized the legal rights of relatives of factory workers who had received para-occupational or domestic asbestos exposures as well as those of local residents to be compensated for illnesses caused by inhalation of Uralita asbestos.3 In this landmark judgment, the Court ordered that the Corporación Industrial de Materiales de Construcción S.A. formerly called Uralita made restitution totalling 2.3 million (US$2.74m) to 39 plaintiffs who had been injured as a result of having inhaled asbestos fibers liberated by the companys industrial activities between 1907 and 1997.4
The Supreme Court agreed that the company should have known of the human health hazards posed by exposures to asbestos by the 1940s at the latest. Given that knowledge, Uralita had a responsibility to minimize toxic exposures not only to its workforce but also to nearby communities. It did not do so. The Court found the management guilty of failing to: fulfil its duty of care, minimize levels of asbestos within the factory walls and take steps to prevent environmental contamination outside its premises. Citing the active obligation to prevent damage the company had had, the Court condemned Uralitas disregard of the hazard posed by asbestos fibers taken home on the clothing of its workers; wives or mothers who washed dusty overalls and children who breathed in the deadly dust were all exposed to Uralita asbestos.
The day after this legal bombshell, news of another high-profile asbestos ruling was circulating throughout traditional media outlets and social media portals; the case in question involved José María Íñigo, a famous Spanish broadcaster, journalist and TV presenter.5 One week earlier, Madrids Social Court number 2 had issued a plaintiffs verdict in a lawsuit brought by his family which recognized his mesothelioma death in 2018 as having been caused by occupational exposures to asbestos at the studios of the Spanish broadcasting corporation: RTVE between 1975 and 1985.6 Broadcasting requirements, which were fulfilled by the use of asbestos-containing material, were described in evidence presented to the Court:
Studio 1 had significant noise problems, due to the fact that in the live broadcasts the outside noise leaked into the studio and the acoustics were not as good as they should be, therefore the walls and the ceilings were covered with a spray of a binder and asbestos fiber that solved a large part of the acoustic, insulation and absorption problem the ovations, noise, applause, music caused vibrations in the structure of the set and a crystalline dust fell on the cameras, the cyclorama (a large curtain or wall positioned at the back of the stage) and the public which required cleaning.7
José María Íñigo.
Spurious arguments advanced by the defendants were soundly dismissed by the Court:
from the evidence submitted and the reasoning presented, it must be considered that there are solid elements to affirm that the death of José María Íñigo was a consequence of exposure to asbestos which occurred during the first stage of his professional relationship with RTVE and which led to the subsequent development of pleural mesothelioma within the latency period, which was the cause of his death.
It is not yet known whether this judgment will be appealed to Madrids Superior Court of Justice.
The ruling in the Íñigo case was significant on multiple levels. With this breakthrough finding, the path was now clear for the family to bring a lawsuit for wrongful death against his former employer RTVE; this will, no doubt, encourage other RTVE workers with asbestos-related illnesses to follow suit. On a national scale, the publicity generated by the litigation and the precedent set by the ruling could open the floodgates for more asbestos lawsuits. An article published days after the verdict estimated that 30,000 such cases were waiting to be lodged in Galicia Spains 5th largest autonomous community. Across the country, the numbers could be huge.8
Should the reader be inclined to view the confluence of these historic verdicts as a matter of sheer serendipity, he/she would be wrong. The Spanish dialogue on asbestos has changed not through a stroke of luck but as a result of hard work by civil society campaigners. Despite all the obstacles they encountered and the fight-back from vested interests they endured, the efforts of asbestos victims groups, grassroots activists, trade unionists and environmentalists are succeeding in changing the legal, medical, social and environmental asbestos landscapes. Issues long ignored are now being brought center stage. Environmental contamination in Toledo, Villarreal, Seville, Madrid and Castello mobilized local people to lobby municipal and regional governments for the implementation of coordinated plans to eradicate the public health hazard in their neighborhoods.9 Occupational exposures to asbestos led factory workers in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Malaga, Zaragoza, Cadiz, Valladoid, Llodio and elsewhere to bring individual and class action lawsuits while railway and railway carriage workshop workers, supported by their trade unions, took well-publicized action over asbestos contamination of the Madrid and Barcelona Metros and Malaga railway workshop. In Seville, Murcia, Madrid, Benidorm and Barcelona parents and staff from schools containing asbestos successfully engaged with the media to highlight the deadly threat to children attending asbestos-contaminated schools.10
Across Spain, demands are growing for federal answers to local problems. Calls by campaigners, backed by medical and scientific experts, support the establishment of a Comprehensive Asbestos Law, a National Asbestos Compensation Fund and legislation for mandatory asbestos audits and eradication plans. Whilst dealing with one epidemic, the government must finally address the challenges posed by an earlier one. With 130,000 Spanish asbestos deaths predicted by 2050,11 there is no time to lose.
March 22, 2021
2 Technical experts believe that there is no way Spain can meet the EUs 2032 deadline to eradicate asbestos from the national infrastructure; the earliest date this could happen is 2050.
3 Uralita deberá indemnizar a los vecinos de la fábrica de amianto en Cerdanyola [Uralita must compensate the residents of the asbestos factory in Cerdanyola]. March 17, 2021.
4 El Tribunal Supremo obliga a Uralita a indemnizar con 2,3 millones a familiares y vecinos afectados por el amianto [The Supreme Court forces Uralita to compensate with 2.3 million relatives and neighbors affected by asbestos]. March 17, 2021.
5 Kazan-Allen, L. José María Íñigos Last Battle. January 20, 2021.
6 La justicia reconoce que el amianto causó la muerte del presentador José María Íñigo [Justice recognizes that asbestos caused the death of presenter José María Íñigo]. March 16, 2016.
7 La justicia reconoce que el amianto causó la muerte del presentador José María Íñigo [Justice recognizes that asbestos caused the death of presenter José María Íñigo]. March 16, 2021
8 Elias, C. Más de treinta mil trabajadores gallegos, pendientes del fondo de compensación del amianto tras la sentencia de José María Íñigo [More than thirty thousand Galician workers, may access the asbestos compensation fund after the sentence of José María Íñigo]. March 19, 2021.
9 Las zonas de España más contaminadas por la presencia de amianto [The areas of Spain most polluted by the presence of asbestos]. March 13, 2019
10 IBAS online news archive of asbestos developments in Spain.
11 Amianto, la pandemia silenciosa [Asbestos, the silent pandemic].