Unite the Union is backing a High Court test case next week to protect the legal rights of thousands of vulnerable asbestos victims throughout the UK.

The UK's largest trade union, represented by Thompsons Solicitors, is backing a lead case in a nine-week court battle, starting on Tuesday, June 3, 2008, against insurance companies who deny liability to pay compensation in mesothelioma cases.

Unite is fighting to preserve the right to compensation for people who develop the fatal disease, mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos in the work place.

Unite joint General Secretary Derek Simpson said: "The union is supporting this test case to protect the right of mesothelioma sufferers and their families to obtain compensation, and to make sure that insurance companies pay out on behalf of the employers they insured when workers were being negligently exposed to asbestos.

"What's at stake here is millions of pounds which should be used to compensate asbestos victims and not be pocketed by the insurance industry. It is a sickening scenario and we will fight every step of the way to see that insurers are not allowed to pass the buck and dodge their liabilities."

Charles' daughter, Maureen Edwards said: "It's important to us that we win this test case, not just for our family, but for all those families, now and in the future, who will be devastated by this awful disease."

"My dad died a painful death due to mesothelioma and watching him go through it was agonising for all of us. But now our grief and sorrow is being dragged out and made worse by the insurers who we feel are doing all they can to get away without accepting any responsibility.

"We will not be able to move on with our lives until we have finally achieved justice for my dad."

Trigger Issue

In what has become known as the "trigger issue" test case the insurers are arguing that the policies they sold to employers to insure against liability for workers becoming ill or injured due to their work, are "triggered" by the development of the disease rather than by the exposure to asbestos.

Their argument breaches the fundamental principle that the person who caused the damage (i.e. by exposing workers to asbestos) pays and will be indemnified by their insurer.

It is a heartlessly opportunistic attempt by insurers to take advantage of a recent Court of Appeal case involving 'Public Liability' insurance. Public Liability insurance policies are written to trigger liability when injuries develop, but Employers Liability insurance, as in this test case, was written on the understanding that the insurer's liability is triggered by the asbestos exposure which caused the damage.

Asbestos Victims and their Families

Often the time lapse between exposure to the deadly dust and the development of mesothelioma can be longer than 40 years.

If the insurance companies are successful it will lead to thousands of asbestos victims and their families being deprived of their right to compensation.

In the test case, supported by Unite, the family of mesothelioma victim Charles Michael O'Farrell have previously been awarded compensation by the court of £152,000. The insurers have refused to pay this.

Whether the family ever receive the compensation depends on the outcome of the High Court test case. The decision is expected in the autumn but is likely to be appealed by whichever party loses. It is widely anticipated that the trigger issue test case may eventually be taken to the House of Lords.

Charles O'Farrell, a retired member of Unite, who died in 2003, was exposed to asbestos while working as a steel erector for Humphreys & Glasgow Limited from 1964 to 1967. The company ceased trading in 1986 and is currently in liquidation.

When Charles was exposed to asbestos his employer was insured by Excess Insurance Company Limited.

Excess is now refusing to pay to Mr O'Farrell's family the damages the court ordered against the employer it insured.

If the High Court finds in favour of Excess it will mean thousands of mesothelioma victims and their families will be unable to obtain compensation because, if by the time the worker develops the disease the employer who exposed them to asbestos is defunct, no insurance will exist.

This news story was also published by The Guardian and the BBC .