Boom and doom
The ghost town of Wittenoom has more than its fair share of ghosts. A booming mining hub in the 1950s and 1960s, it occupies a tragic place in history as the site of Australia’s deadliest industrial disaster.
The story of this toxic time-bomb is one of denial in the boardroom, and heartbreak in hospital wards. And though Wittenoom’s asbestos dust may have settled, its legacy lingers as a cautionary tale for all.
Slater and Gordon entered the saga in the mid-1980s, when Yvonne Adam asked the firm to represent her husband Ray, who worked at Wittenoom back in 1948. Ray was gravely ill with lung disease, and Yvonne wanted some recompense from the owner of the mines.
That owner was Sydney-based Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd (CSR). Having diversified into building materials in the 1940s, CSR had bought the Wittenoom mining leases from a brash young local named Lang Hancock. The future iron-ore magnate would for decades after dismiss all talk of asbestos-related diseases.
CSR’s Wittenoom enterprise was christened Australian Blue Asbestos (later sanitised as Midalco). With large-scale asbestos mining and crushing under way by 1947, the state government of the day helped establish the town, barely eight kilometres from the main mine site.
Hundreds of European migrants signed contracts in total ignorance of Wittenoom’s living and working conditions. Some 6700 people worked at the two mines at one time or another. Of these, it was estimated by medical experts that up to 3000 would die of asbestos poisoning.
Ray Adam was one of them. In Melbourne in 1986, Slater and Gordon had Ray examined by two independent doctors, who confirmed the verdict of mesothelioma, lung and bronchial cancer, and silicosis. The case was rushed to court, with Ray giving evidence from his hospital bed.
He recalled toiling in the Wittenoom crushing mill, where the asbestos dust was ‘unbelievable to see … all over the place and the windows clogged up with it’. The workers were never warned it might be a health risk – ‘never in a million years.’
Almost immediately after giving evidence, Ray died. So too did his damages case. But Slater and Gordon was able to negotiate the first-ever out-of-court settlement with CSR. Ray’s widow Yvonne received $60,000 in damages, of which $10,000 went in legal costs.
Source: Asbestos Disease Society
The crucial call
It was also in 1986 that the Firm took a call from another former Wittenoom worker, Robert Vojakovic. As president of Perth’s Asbestos Diseases Society, Robert invited Slater and Gordon to take over its WA asbestos cases. The crucial call changed the firm’s destiny.
This was easier said the done. Many asbestos cases were already being handled by Perth lawyer John Gordon (no relation to the Slater and Gordon folk). John had launched a test case in the WA Supreme Court but his firm held out little hope of success. More optimistic, John agreed to join the barnstorming Slater and Gordon lawyers, eventually bringing 62 asbestos case files with him.
But the new team was on a tough deadline. Under the WA government’s Acts Amendment (Asbestos Related Diseases), all claims for illness which occurred before 1984 had to be lodged by January 18, 1987. This gave Slater and Gordon eight weeks to reach internal agreement, set up office, engage staff, and lodge writs.
With Wittenoom victims scattered far and wide, the Perth team ran advertisements nationwide, warning sufferers that their right to sue was about to expire. Hundreds of replies poured in and staff worked like fury through Christmas and New Year. By the expiry date they had filed 354 Statements of Claim on top of those already filed.
A dizzying cycle of victories and defeats began. John Gordon’s WA Supreme Court test case on behalf of longtime Wittenoom worker Wally Simpson morphed into a marathon of conflicting technical evidence, with the judge concluding that the onus remained on Wally to prove his case against the mine owner.
Having spent a fortune setting up office and flying in expert witnesses, Slater and Gordon dipped further into the red to lodge an appeal before the Full Supreme Court. Placing far more weight on the plaintiff’s medical evidence, the appeal judges ordered a retrial. But before this could be heard Wally Simpson accepted a $220,000 settlement from CSR.
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