The family of a deceased former Sunshine North resident exposed to deadly asbestos dust and fibres while playing in waste behind the notorious Wunderlich factory as a young boy, has been awarded $467,000 damages by a Victorian Supreme Court jury.
In the first asbestosis legal claim to run to verdict in Victoria in a decade, the jury found that the owner and operator of the former Wunderlich factory, Seltsam Pty Ltd, had negligently allowed Marian Copicz’s exposure to asbestos dust and fibres.
The 69 year-old father of three and grandfather of six died in October last year after battling the lung disease asbestosis for more than two years.
His family, including his wife Carolyn Ciopicz, continued his claim after he died.
Following today’s verdict, Mrs Ciopicz spoke of her husband and family’s determination to get justice.
“Marian would have wanted me to finish what he started. I’m relieved and pleased and I’m grateful to the jury and my lawyers.
“Marian was a brave man who fought his illness to the very end. If it weren’t for that asbestos factory and its disgraceful pollution we would still have him here.
“Wunderlich let little children use its toxic dump as a playground. That is unbelievable. And so is the fact that they forced us to trial to get justice for Marian.”
In a statement signed shortly before his death, and read to the jury, Mr Ciopicz described how he and his brother and friends innocently played in the asbestos waste behind the factory, unaware of the grave danger.
“It was simply a terrific area for a child to play. We built cubby houses out of asbestos cement sheets. Sometimes we dug tunnels through the waste, other times we dug trenches with boards we found lying around and then piled waste on top of the boards…
“We threw handfuls of waste at each other and they exploded on impact. When playing there it sometimes felt like we were in a snow storm. The air was full of white or gray dust and we were completely covered in it – hair, ears, all over our clothes and so on. It was great fun.”
The jury heard Mr Ciopicz was exposed to asbestos dust and fibres for 20 years from the age of eight. His family lived in Sandford Avenue, around 600 metres from the Wunderlich factory. He also walked past the McIntyre Road site on the way to school. He later worked next door at the Taubmans paint factory where asbestos dust from Wunderlich would be blown in.
The family was represented by law firm Slater and Gordon.
Their lawyer Michael Magazanik said Mr Copicz’s claim was strong and that the family was always confident.
“The dangers of asbestos have been well known since the 1890s. Yet Wunderlich (Australia’s second biggest asbestos company after James Hardie) was allowing vulnerable children to wallow in the stuff on its own property. It’s frankly outrageous.
“And it’s disappointing that the defendant didn’t say ‘we stuffed up, we’re sorry, we should never have done that’. Hopefully the company has learned a lesson out of this result.”
Mr Magazanik said the evidence at the trial had pointed to multiple ways in which the company was endangering locals.
“As well as the asbestos dump at the back, there was evidence that the factory was using a fan to blast waste asbestos dust into the air above the factory which was then blown all over the place. And trucks leaving the factory were spilling asbestos waste over local roads.
“The Wunderlich factory has been linked to a number of asbestos related deaths and illnesses in the local community. It has left a tragic legacy in Sunshine North. Seltsam can no longer avoid responsibility for its behaviour.”