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The Tasmanian Government must make sure that improvements to asbestos compensation benefit all Tasmanians and not just people exposed to the deadly product through the course of their work, according to national law firm Slater and Gordon.
Slater and Gordon conducted the first successful common law asbestos litigation case in Australia in 1984 and created many legal precedents in this area of law. The firm has acted for thousands of people exposed to and diagnosed with an asbestos related disease, including Tasmanian residents.
Slater and Gordon lawyer, Leigh Harper, said changes announced by the government this month were focussed on people exposed to asbestos in the workplace and failed to improve the compensation needs of people who came into contact with the deadly product outside of work.
“While improving the compensation scheme for victims is an admirable goal, the changes being proposed by the government will not assist everyone who suffers from asbestos disease in Tasmania,” Mr Harper said.
“The proposed changes ignore self contractors who have come into contact with asbestos products; the changes will not cover people who have been exposed as family members of workers; as bystanders; or those who were exposed during home renovations.”
“The assumption that all asbestos victims are exposed in the course of their work is incorrect,” Mr Harper said.
“We also know that the number of asbestos sufferers is expected to peak in Australia over the next two decades. A lot of these people will have come into contact with asbestos through other means other than their workplace.
Mr Harper also criticised the idea that the proposed scheme be funded by a levy on all Tasmania employers.
“The decision to make Tasmanian businesses pay removes the responsibility that companies such as James Hardies and Cement Australia have in compensating victims. Instead, the cost is put in the lap of Tasmanian employers, regardless of whether they have had any involvement with asbestos products or not.”
Mr Harper said there was some “easy fixes” that could be made to improve the current common law rights for asbestos disease sufferers rather than introducing an entirely new scheme which would only benefit some victims.
“Common law rights allow for more than a one size fits all approach and it recognises the individual circumstances of each asbestos sufferer.
“If the current laws are to be changed at all, it should be done to improve all potential victims of asbestos exposure.
“Minor changes to the current common law legislation could improve the system and bring Tasmania into line with other States in Australia.
Mr Harper said the government should exempt asbestos exposure cases from the limitations laws.
“The law currently requires accident victims to take court action within three years from when their injury occurs. For most victims, such as those injured in car accidents, this is reasonable. Victims of asbestos exposure are often exposed to asbestos 30 or 40 years before they develop any symptoms of a disease. In NSW and Queensland, time limits for asbestos victims have been abolished. It would be a simple matter to exempt asbestos exposure claims from such time limits. It would also reduce the legal costs of making such claims.”
“Secondly, our common law system should make allowance for provisional damages. Unlike other accident victims, people exposed to asbestos can develop a range of conditions and sometimes more than one. Under the current system, a person who develops mild asbestosis and settles their claim for compensation will not be able to claim further compensation if they later develop lung cancer or mesothelioma. Asbestos victims in Victoria, NSW and South Australia are able to make a further claim if they later develop a more serious condition. Tasmanian victims should not be denied the same rights.”
Mr Harper said he had written to the Minister for Workplace Relations, David O’Byrne, outlining Slater and Gordon’s concerns.