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Western Australia’s leading asbestos law firm has welcomed proposed legislative changes introduced into parliament yesterday which would allow greater justice for victims of the deadly dust.
Slater and Gordon asbestos lawyer Tricia Wong said the legal reforms were a significant step forward for victims and if passed, would be an historic move for the State’s decision-makers.
“Western Australia boasts one of the highest rates of asbestos-related diseases found anywhere in the world, with about 250 victims dying in this State every year,” she said.
“The Wittenoom mine may have closed down nearly five decades ago, but the effects are still being felt across the State as a ‘third wave’ of victims – mainly home renovators – comes through.
“The ‘first wave’ was mostly miners and manufacturers and the ‘second wave’ was construction workers, carpenters and other trades people exposed to asbestos fibres from building materials.”
Ms Wong said there were two key pieces of legislative reform introduced into State Parliament which would bring Western Australia into line with Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
“As a lawyer who represents victims in their fight for compensation, I see the devastating impacts of asbestos-related diseases, and there are two legal changes in WA which would make a significant difference to victims and their families,” she said.
“Currently in Western Australia, asbestosis sufferers can only claim common law compensation once. This means if they go on to develop a fatal disease, like mesothelioma, they are not able to be compensated for that deadly condition as well.
“This leaves victims with an agonising dilemma. They must gamble on whether to make a claim now and cut off any chance of compensation for a terminal disease; or do nothing and potentially miss out on compensation for their existing asbestosis.
“The proposed legislation would allow victims to receive interim or ‘provisional damages’ for their first illness and make a further claim if they contract a more serious illness later.
“Interestingly, well-known asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton would have been prevented from bringing a claim for his mesothelioma had he been fighting for compensation in Western Australia today.”
Ms Wong said the second area of legislative reform related to what is known as ‘Sullivan v Gordon damages’ which would allow asbestos victims to be compensated for the care costs of anyone they look after, when they’re no longer able to care for them.
“Asbestos victims who care for their young child, elderly parent or partner with a disability, for example, are currently missing out under Western Australian law because they cannot be compensated for their ‘domestic services’,” Ms Wong said.
“The proposed legislation would mean victims can claim for the commercial cost of replacing the care that they would normally have provided if they hadn’t become ill or passed away.
“With asbestos-related diseases now confronting people aged in their 30s and 40s, it is more and more likely that victims will be caring for their young children or older parents.
“Changing this aspect of the law is a sensible approach to helping victims and the people who depend on them.”
Ms Wong said while these laws would be a landmark move for Western Australia, asbestos victims in other states had had access to this kind of justice for many years.
“WA has certainly fallen behind the nation when it comes to bringing justice to asbestos victims, which is concerning given the number of Western Australians of all ages and from all walks of life who have been exposed to asbestos,” she said.
“As long as this deadly product is in our homes, workplaces and buildings across our neighbourhoods, it will continue to pose a great risk to our lives.
“Perhaps the most disturbing reality is that many experts agree that Australia will not see the full effects of asbestos until disease rates peak in the 2020s.
“I encourage members of parliament from all sides of politics to support these legal reforms and bring about some common-sense changes for sick and vulnerable Western Australians.”
Robert Vojakovic, President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA), said current laws forced asbestos victims to take a gamble on deciding when to make a legal claim.
“Asbestos victims have been forced to play Russian roulette in choosing whether to make a claim now and end their chance of compensation for a fatal illness or wait it out and run the risk of not getting compensated for the original illness,” he said.
“We work with thousands of victims of asbestos-caused diseases across Western Australia so we see the impacts of the State’s unfair laws first-hand.
“The laws are especially unjust when we look over to other states and see that their laws have been changed.
“These proposed changes are a positive development for sufferers and the ADSA throws its support behind the reforms.”
The Asbestos Diseases Compensation Bill 2013 was introduced into State Parliament yesterday.