The case of a woman who contracted mesothelioma after washing her husband's asbestos-riddled work clothes for 27 years threatens to set off another wave of compensation claims against the occupiers of sites that handled the deadly fibres.
Beverly Stavar, 70, has convinced the NSW Court of Appeal she should be able to sue Caltex for the time her husband, Frank, worked on the construction of a refinery in the Brisbane suburb of Lytton, starting in 1964. Until last week's ruling, family members had only been successful in asbestos claims against employers and manufacturers such as James Hardie, and not against companies which had occupied sites.
Peter Gordon, of plaintiff mesothelioma law firm Slater & Gordon said ``it was an important step in the development of consumers' rights in relation to asbestos''.
``It's yet another affirmation of the duty of care that large companies, in particular, have got when they have toxic substances like asbestos on their premises.''
He said Caltex was ``not just an occupier''.
``One thing that can be clearly said for the likes of Caltex is that they have had access to knowledge, science and research and have obligations which extend not just to their own workforce but to others, including families, that might be affected.''
Mrs Stavar is in poor health and declined to talk about her case or her incurable asbestos-related cancer.
The Dust and Diseases Tribunal awarded her $339,000, but said Caltex -- which took over Ampol in 1995 -- only owed her a duty of care from the time it employed her husband as lagger and sheet metal worker in 1974.
It ordered Mrs Stavar to pay costs related to the period before 1974, when her husband was employed by subcontractors at the site.
However, the appeal court said there were adequate warnings of the risk, at least by 1971, when the Asbestos Rule applied in Queensland.
Justice James Allsop said he was ``not confident from the approach of the president that a duty did not arise, at least from 1971''.
``There is a clear foundation from 1971 for a conclusion that Ampol (Qld) had an obligation to understand the medical and OH & S consideration of asbestos ... what the position was before 1971 might well be open to debate,'' he said.
He added the rule ``implicitly required the occupier of the refinery to have familiarity with the relevant medical and OH & S knowledge, including the risk posed to members of a contaminated worker's domestic household''.
Mrs Stavar's barrister, Jim McIntyre SC, said these type of claims had previously been settled.
However he pointed out that Mrs Stavar was yet to succeed against Caltex in its role as an occupier and that he was ``not at liberty to offer any comment on the merits of this aspect of the plaintiff's claim''.
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