It is widely accepted that asbestosis occurs in individuals exposed to high levels of asbestos dust over many years, but a recent appeal court decision in America considers the duration of exposure required to make a contribution to the condition.
A Louisiana appeal court – reversing a trial court judgment – ruled that five days exposure to asbestos dust could be a substantial contributing factor to asbestosis.
Asbestosis is a form of lung disease caused by breathing in asbestos dust. The dust permanently damages the alveoli (air sacs which supply oxygen to the blood stream) within the lungs. Symptoms can include debilitating breathlessness.
The facts of the case are that the claimant, Mr Alberes, alleged that he developed asbestosis as a result of occupational exposures while working in a variety jobs from 1953 through to 2006.
In the late 1970s or early 1980s, Mr Alberes worked for five days as a pipefitter helping install and remove gaskets containing asbestos at a company called Goodrich in Louisiana. Mr Alberes also claimed that he worked in close proximity to laggers, who were removing and installing insulation containing asbestos. It was his job to clean up the insulation at the end of the working day.
An industrial hygienist testified on behalf of Mr Alberes that he would have been exposed to concentrations of asbestos above ‘contemporary occupational limits’ and the asbestos-containing gaskets would have been a significant contributing factor in his development of asbestosis.
The defendant asserted that Mr Alberes had failed to provide evidence of frequent and regular exposure to asbestos fibres at Goodrich and that the exposure would not have been a substantial factor in the development of his asbestosis. An expert testified for the defendant that all exposures to asbestos dust are cumulative and contribute to causation of asbestosis. The defendant highlighted the fact that Mr Alberes’ exposure was ‘only for five days on a turnaround job and inconsequential in the scope of a life-long career employed as a labourer, pipefitter helper and crane operator’.
The appeal court, however, noted that the defendant had failed to advance any case law to support its contention, and that the trial judgment was based on Mr Alberes’ exposure, while working for Goodrich, being deemed minimal compared to other longer exposures.
Given that the substantial contributing factor test in US asbestos-related cases focuses on the intensity of exposure and the duration of exposure, the appeal court held that there was sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue as to whether Mr Alberes’ five days of exposure to asbestos at Goodrich was a substantial contributing factor to his asbestosis. As a result, the appeals court reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.
While US law has no bearing on UK courts, the case is still of interest in relation to the difficult question of when concentrated levels of asbestos dust exposure over short periods contribute to the development of asbestosis. The case against Goodrich has been allowed to proceed at this stage and we await the eventual outcome with interest.