State to sue workers over failed asbestos claims

 

The Government is to take legal action against hundreds of public sector workers who have sought damages for anxiety over exposure to asbestos.

The unprecedented move to recoup legal costs from almost 500 workers is aimed at dispelling the perception that the State is a "soft-touch" for compensation claims.

The decision follows a landmark Supreme Court judgement earlier this year which overturned a large compensation award given to a worker who developed an "irrational fear" of contracting a disease following exposure to asbestos in Leinster House.

There are hundreds of similar cases still outstanding against the State from public sector workers who worked in buildings such as Áras an Uachtaráin, the National Gallery, the National Museum and Hawkins House.

The State Claims Agency, which handles almost all personal injury cases against the State, estimates that it has been forced to spend an average of €5,000, or €2.3 million in total, on legal costs preparing for these cases.

Government sources say they hope the adversarial move will undo some of the damage caused by what they describe as "copycat" cases, such as the Army deafness claims, which have cost the State almost €350 million.

Mr Ciarán Breen, of the State Claims Agency, said the decision to recover the costs would send out a strong signal. "The days when claimants felt they could be speculative in relation to suing the State are gone. Now, if you decide to sue the State and lose, we will seek to recover those costs," Mr Breen said.

The State will seek an order from the High Court in October seeking permission to recoup legal costs from the asbestos claimants. The Government had feared that it was facing another major lawsuit following a series of successful legal cases over exposure to asbestos.

However, the State successfully appealed a case in February this year when a man was awarded more than £48,700 (€61,800) for exposure to asbestos dust while working in the basement of Leinster House in the late 1980s.

In that decision, the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Keane, said the law should not be extended by the courts to allow plaintiffs to recover damages for psychiatric injury "resulting from an irrational fear of contracting a disease because of their negligent exposure to health risks by their employers, where their risk is characterised by their medical advisers as very remote."

The vast majority of the asbestos cases against the State involve alleged psychological damage and do not involve any physical harm.

The State Claims Agency has already written to solicitors representing these clients. Legal actions have also been lodged byfrom ESB workers, who say they were exposed to asbestos, and some maintenance workers in Iarnród Éireann, whose train carriages were sprayed with asbestos.

A total State liability of €50 million had originally been suggested, but this will be substantially reduced as a result of the Supreme Court case. The Office of Public Works began an asbestos removal programme in all 6,000 State buildings five years ago, but this has not yet concluded.

This was expected to be finished by the end of this year, but progress has been slower than expected.

Asbestos was used widely as a lagging material and in cement products because of its insulation and fire-protection qualities. It becomes dangerous when its fibres are released into the air and this can cause asbestosis and lung and chest cancers. Some of these illnesses can take up to 30 years to develop.