From next month (April 2016) veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos during their service in the army, navy and air force will be entitled to compensation.
Prior to the Government announcing the change in December, veterans suffering an injury or illness caused before 1987 could not sue the Ministry of Defence (MOD). This is because of the doctrine known as Crown Immunity. An individual who had developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure during service would only be entitled to receive a War Disablement Pension.
More than 2,500 Royal navy veterans will die from mesothelioma in the next three decades, according to researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Without the Government announcement, these 2,500 Royal Navy veterans would have been left with a fraction of what a civilian could claim in compensation for exposure to asbestos.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive and incurable type of lung cancer caused in the majority of case by past exposure to asbestos dust and fibres. The life expectancy of a sufferer is short, which means widowed or unmarried veterans receive far less in compensation than their civilian counterparts.
Generally speaking if a civilian was exposed at work and they could not trace their former employers, or the employer liability insurers, then the individual would be able to claim under the Mesothelioma Act 2014. A 63 year-old civilian could expect to receive in the region of £186,000 in compensation, while a veteran of the same age would expect to receive as little as £32,000 through a War Pension – little over a sixth of what a civilian would secure. In reality many veterans would receive even less.
The Royal British Legion has campaigned tirelessly to get veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma the justice and fairness they have earned whilst serving their country. The change has been welcomed by the organisation but does not go far enough.
What will the change mean?
From December 16, 2015, (when the announcement was made) any ex-servicemen diagnosed with mesothelioma who was exposed to asbestos during service are eligible for a lump sum compensation of £140,000 under the Mesothelioma Act 2014, or a War Pension.
The Government has confirmed that the legislative provisions will be made to enable lump sums to be paid from April 11, 2016. And as stated, the payments will be back dated for those diagnosed with mesothelioma after December 15.
The changes do not go far enough
Whilst the news is a positive step it is still not entirely fair and it is worth revisiting a statement made by Lord Alton during the House of Lords debate in November 2015 regarding a second reading of the 2014 Act. He said: “Veterans should be offered compensation at least equal to that which the courts and the Government have decided that civilians deserve. The unequal treatment of our servicemen amounts to a serious breach of the Armed Forces Covenant, which is supposed to ensure that veterans are not disadvantaged because of their service.”
In the light of Lord Alton’s comments the Government has missed an opportunity to fully remedy an injustice for veterans exposed to asbestos during their service for our country because:
- The changes still leave those veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma before December 16, 2015, unable to claim compensation.
- Veterans will not be able to claim compensation for other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis, pleural thickening and lung cancer. Civilians can secure substantial financial support to help them cope with these conditions and secure their family’s future when they are gone.
- Veterans will have to choose carefully between the lump sum payment and whether they want to receive a War Pension, or risk being out of pocket. They will have to take into account their age, advances in mesothelioma treatment and the unpredictable nature of the cancer. Currently the median life expectancy for mesothelioma patients usually ranges from 12 to 21 months, depending on the stage of the disease at diagnosis but some sufferers can live past five years. With the hope that research and new treatments extend life further, veterans will be taking a gamble on their survival and risk being out of pocket again compared to a civilian mesothelioma sufferer.
Jan Garvey, from the National Asbestos Helpline, says: “We’ve helped many individuals involved in shipbuilding, especially pipe laggers and insulators, and those working in the engine rooms. But we’ve also had to tell many service veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma that they cannot sue the MOD or claim support through the 2014 Mesothelioma Act. We should be looking after our ex-service men and women, and so The Royal British Legion’s campaign and success to get a fairer deal is very welcome.”
Craig Howell, head of industrial disease and partner with Birchall Blackburn Law, says: “It’s a bit of good news for veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma but there is still a lot more the Government should be doing. The change does not put veterans and civilians on an equal footing, and there is still the question of the other asbestos diseases that are not covered by the 2014 Act. When it comes to asbestos we need to be doing a lot more for the people who have served their country.”