Sometimes it seems that the same corporate greed that is damaging American democracy is spreading to other parts of the world as well. Last month, the U.K.’s “Law Lords”–similar to the U.S. Supreme Court–made a ruling which determined that pleural plaques, a scarring of lung tissue, is ineligible for insurance compensation. The judgment resulted from action brought by E.U. insurers, who estimate payments made for victims of pleural plaques have amounted to over 1.4 billion GBP (currently about 2.5 billion USD) over a period of 36 years. The argument on the part of the insurers was that pleural plaques are not in fact a disease; there are no symptoms, and therefore no effect on victims’ health. On the other side, it was argued that the mere diagnosis of pleural plaques causes “great distress and anxiety to those affected, who fear they will then fall victim to other asbestos diseases.” The case is similar to “tort reform” in the U.S. In increasing numbers of states, asbestos exposure is no longer a valid reason for court action; new laws require that a plaintiff actually be diagnosed and suffering from symptoms before filing suit. While this argument may have some degree of validity, the problem is that with malignant asbestos diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, time is not on the plaintiff’s side; the average prognosis for mesothelioma victims who have been diagnosed is 18 months.
Martin Bare, who presides over the U.K. Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, made the following statement: “By refusing to rule in favour of the appeal, the Law Lords have effectively decided that thousands of people will suffer financial hardship as a result of having been exposed to asbestos in the workplace, through no fault of their own. The stress of living with pleural plaques is immeasurable. To know that they suffer from a condition that could be a pre-cursor to mesothelioma, which is effectively a death sentence, must be unbearable for someone suffering from the disease.” Labor unions in the U.K. have been quite critical of the Law Lords’ decision. The insurers on the other hand are quite satisfied. A Swiss representative of one of the companies who brought the action was quoted as saying that “…the insurance industry has a responsibility to compensate people who’ve suffered an injury and not to pay out policyholders’ money for a condition that causes no symptoms.” This ruling does not apply in Scotland, which although technically still part of the U.K., has had its own separate parliament for several years.