|Issue No 39||12 November 1999|
Justice at Last for Waterfront Asbestos Victims
Tens of thousands of Australian waterside workers exposed to deadly asbestos fibres stand to benefit by thousands of dollars from a High Court decision in Canberra this week.
The High Court has upheld a jury decision to award more than $800,000 to a Melbourne wharfie who has since died after contracting the deadly cancer, mesothelioma
This is the first time a waterside worker has successfully sued for asbestos disease. The landmark ruling ends a two year saga for widow Maureen Crimmins, whose husband Brian was exposed to raw asbestos shipped loose in hessian bags when he worked on the Melbourne waterfront between 1961 and 1965.
"Under the system of labour at the time, waterside labourers worked casually for more than 15 different stevedores, making it impossible to determine which employer was responsible when a worker was exposed," Kent says.
"Workers in other industry groups have long been able to provide for their families by seeking compensation for the devastating health effects of their asbestos exposure."
The only compensation for waterside workers to date has been through an industrial agreement the union negotiated in 1982. It provides ex-gratia payments of $50,000 for any member proved to have contracted asbestos disease.
The payouts do not stop members seeking compensation claims or common law action in the courts. Mr Crimmins sued the Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee, a statutory authority which succeeded the Australian Stevedoring Industry Authority, the body formerly in charge of waterfront operations nationally.
In March 1997, after a 17 day trial, a jury awarded Crimmins $833,622 based on evidence of how he had contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos during his days on the waterfront.
The Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee successfully appealed, but today's High Court decision restores the original jury decision.
Solicitor Margaret Kent says during the 1950s and 1960s there were more than 20,000 men working as wharfies at any given time, with considerable amounts of asbestos moving through the ports.
"Wharfies are in the top 10 occupational groups affected by mesothelioma," Ms Kent said. "The latest projections are that deaths from asbestos related disease will continue to increase for the next 20 years. Mr Crimmins died in July 1998.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005