Following a 7 year legal battle, 79 claimants who brought claims for compensation following the largest known outbreak of occupational lung disease have settled their claims in an out of court settlement.

John Walsh, Regional Industrial Organiser – Unite the Union, and Karl De-Loyde, Partner with Thompsons Solicitors said at a press briefing held in Birmingham today, at the Unite the Union regional office, Transport House, Victoria Street, West Bromwich.

Powertrain Ltd was the engine building division of MG Rover, based in the East Works in Longbridge, Birmingham. Metalworking fluids were used in the manufacturing process, the fluids were supplied by an independent contractor – Houghton plc.

Extrinsic allergic alveolitis and occupational asthma

The set up at Longbridge involved 4 central fluid systems holding between 55’000 and 200’000 litres of metalworking fluids, together with over 150 single sump machines and wash machines. Around Easter 2003, following various changes to the fluids, the spray / mist levels within the factory increased shortly followed by an increasing number of staff illnesses subsequently diagnosed as extrinsic allergic alveolitis and occupational asthma.

Both extrinsic allergic alveolitis and occupational asthma cause breathing difficulties which are severe and in some cases long lasting.

The Health and Safety executive undertook a long and thorough investigation, during which 3 improvement notices were served on Powertrain.

Workers developed respiratory disease

The overwhelming conclusion reached by the Health and Safety Executive in August 2004 was that the metalworking fluids had not been maintained sufficiently, thereby allowing the build up and continued growth of bacteria and other harmful substances capable of causing respiratory disease.

As a result of legal challenges brought by Unite the Union, the law was amended to enable employees and former employees exposed to metalworking fluids and who contracted extrinsic allergic alveolitis to claim an industrial disability pension.

Unite the Union instructed Thompsons solicitors to seek compensation on behalf of its members, a group Litigation order was made in 2007, test cases were selected, a large volume of technical and lay evidence was exchanged and the case was listed for trial to start in May 2011.

Compensation Claims have now been settled

The litigation was fiercely contested until Autumn 2010, when following a meeting between the parties legal teams, offers of compensation were made in respect of all claims. There followed a series of further negotiations and all claims have now been settled, the total damages paid by the defendant is a little under £1 million, individual settlements ranged from £500 to £180,000 for the claimants.

Expert evidence was obtained which established that Powertrain did not have any adequate risk assessments in place to address harmful substances, that the defendants management of its metalworking fluids was inadequate and that significant bacteria was allowed to build up and release to the factory atmosphere. Employees had complained for years about the levels of mist and the pungent “ammonia type” smell.

Powertrain brought a separate legal claim against Houghton plc, based on allegations of breach of contract - that Houghton Plc had failed to ensure the metalworking fluids were safe for use.

Injured workers have now received compensation

John Walsh of Unite the Union said “I am delighted that after a 7 year legal battle our members have now received compensation that has been owed to them since they suffered ill health back in 2003/4, it is a pity that it has taken this long”. Mr Walsh added that the unions 3 pronged approach has been extremely successful, namely to tighten the law in respect of metalworking fluids, to force a change to the disability pension rules and to secure compensation for the members employed at Longbridge who suffered disease. Mr Walsh added that he hoped the Pheonix 4 would now do the decent thing and distribute the proceeds in the Rover trust fund to all ex Rover employees and help them move on from this stressful period of their lives.

Karl De-Loyde of Thompsons Solicitors said “We invited the defendants legal team to meet us and negotiate settlement back in 2006, they refused and have denied liability throughout, it was only after the final exchange of technical expert evidence that the defendants were forced to acknowledge they were likely to lose at trial, and were forced to negotiate with us”. Without the support of Unite the Union it would have been almost impossible to bring these claims because of the potential risk that the individual claimants would have been responsible for the other sides costs.

The case highlights the importance of trade union membership, particularly at a time when health and safety is coming under attack.

This news story was also published by Birmingham Post.