Vital Asbestos Hearings Delayed by Insurers
The hopes of mesothelioma claimants throughout Britain received a serious set-back when hearings at the House of Lords were inexplicably cancelled at the last minute1. Months ago plaintiffs Matthews, Fox and Fairchild had been told that their appeals would begin on April 22; the cases had been listed for an expedited hearing because Mr. Matthews is a surviving mesothelioma sufferer. On April 18, a representative of the insurers informed the Judicial Office of the House of Lords that the cases would be settled by payment of damages and costs. Furthermore, he said: "There will be no dispute left for decision by the House. The petitions should therefore be withdrawn by consent or directions given." It is believed that papers were filed with the Lords confirming "the settlement."
Unfortunately, the insurers had neglected to consult the claimants’ solicitors or barristers before they unilaterally informed the House of Lords of "the settlement." The claimants’ representatives did not find out that an application to halt the proceedings had been made to the House of Lords until some hours later. On the evening of April 18, the House of Lords was informed that the cases had not settled and they were re-listed. Unfortunately, by this time the appeal date had been lost and so instead of the appeals beginning on April 22, a hearing to resolve the situation took place in Committee Room One at the House of Lords. Instead of apologizing for what had taken place, the insurers argued against the appeals being re-listed, maintaining that as the defendants were willing to pay full compensation and all costs, there was no longer a valid cause of action. In addition, the Association of British Insurers had, so their barrister explained, drafted a voluntary scheme, details of which were confidential, to compensate mesothelioma victims of occupational asbestos exposure. After a heated discussion, their Lordships Bingham, Nichols, Hutton, Hope and Hoffman rejected the defendants’ submission expressing "regret" at what had transpired. They offered to have the cases heard on May 7, the earliest available date. The Law Lords were aware that hundreds of other cases had been delayed while the outcome of these cases was pending. For this reason, it was imperative that the Lords heard the appeals. Manchester solicitors John Pickering & Partners, who represent the appellants Mr. Matthews and Mrs. Fox, said: "Although we were disappointed to lose the hearing on April 22, our clients were very pleased that the Law Lords were able to re-list the appeal as early as May 7th."
There is widespread concern and "dismay" at the behaviour of the defendants. Sir Sidney Kentridge, representing two of the claimants, described the manner in which the insurers acted as a "sordid attempt to manipulate the judicial process." He added: "The whole objective of this so-called offer and the scheme are to ensure the Court of Appeal decision remains intact." Frances McCarthy, President of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, agrees: "This was a cynical and underhanded attempt by the insurers to prevent the cases being heard… They knew that offering these people their money at such a late stage was not the answer because it would still leave hundreds of people at the mercy of last year’s Court of Appeal judgment." Dozens of MPs signed an Early Day Motion (EDM) on April 23 criticising "the insurer’s last minute offer to settle" these cases. The text of EDM 1186 highlights the need for the Lords to review the Court of Appeal ruling. Other reactions to these developments included a parliamentary lobby by trade unionists. Nigel Bryson, Director of Health and the Environment of the GMB, is furious at the behaviour of the insurers: "Hundreds of GMB asbestos laggers lobbied the House of Commons on April 22 to ensure that Members of Parliament and the Lords understood exactly the feelings of immense anger and betrayal at these developments."
April 24, 2002