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Highest ever damages awarded to asbestos victim

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Media Release

Published on

Steven Dunning, a 54 year old Cessnock man with terminal mesothelioma who was exposed to asbestos while working on blast furnaces at the Newcastle Steelworks, has today won a landmark battle against his former employer BHP Billiton Limited and received $2.2 million in damages. 

The Dust Diseases Tribunal of NSW today found that BHP negligently exposed Mr Dunning to lethal levels of asbestos dust in the period from 1979 to 1981 when he was a 19 year old labourer and as a result, developed his terminal cancer.

Leading asbestos lawyer Joanne Wade said today’s decision was the highest amount of damages awarded in the Dust Diseases Tribunal of NSW and also the first time BHP Billiton Limited had been ordered to pay financial compensation to a former employee of the Newcastle Steelworks who had contracted the incurable mesothelioma.

“While today’s verdict is a significant victory for Mr Dunning and his family, it does not take away from the fact that he is dealing with an incurable, terminal disease as a result of BHP’s negligence,” Ms Wade said.

“BHP has fought this case for almost four years, arguing every available legal point.

“We are extremely pleased that Mr Dunning can now move on and concentrate on spending his remaining time with his loved ones.”

Ms Wade said the six week trial revealed that BHP knew that there was no safe level of exposure to asbestos below which mesothelioma could occur, despite the company’s arguments to the contrary.

A former BHP manager, Ernest Bryon, who was responsible for the safety of BHP in Newcastle, testified that there was a lot of asbestos in the steelworks, and that he knew before Mr Dunning started working there that inhalation of asbestos dust even in small quantities could cause lethal cancer. 

Despite this, BHP’S former general foreman John Gillespie testified that asbestos materials continued to be used by BHP until 1985. 

“I was astounded to learn that senior management within BHP knew that even short, intermittent amounts of asbestos could kill workers yet they continued to use asbestos without warning us,” Mr Gillespie said.

Steven Dunning’s wife, Roma, said their lives had changed dramatically since her husband was diagnosed with the deadly disease.

“I cannot begin to explain the devastation we felt on the day we were told he had this terminal illness,” Mrs Dunning said.

“We are trying to make the most of every day even though Steven is still very sick and unable to do most of the things he used to enjoy.

“It is a daily struggle knowing that I will not have my loving husband to grow old with and that he will never meet his grandchildren and his life will be cut so short.  We never expected this to happen.”

Ms Wade said the landmark judgment would help to secure compensation for other workers who were exposed to asbestos dust and fibre in the BHP Newcastle Steelworks.

“I would encourage any other workers who have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness after working at BHP to come forward and seek legal advice,” Ms Wade said.

Former BHP employees affected by asbestos exposure should phone Slater and Gordon on 1800 555 777 for more information.