#163;180k payout for school asbestos death

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
Widower's legal win over teacher's exposure could open gates for compensation claims

The widower of a drama teacher who died after being exposed to asbestos at work has been awarded #163;180,000 in compensation.

Joan Henry died from mesothelioma aged 57 after working in two east-London schools during a teaching career that spanned more than 30 years.

Stephen Henry wants to use what happened to his wife to ensure more teachers are made aware of the potential dangers of asbestos present in hundreds of schools.

"After you breathe in asbestos fibres, mesothelioma can have an incubation period of 30 years," he said. "You are breathing in a time bomb that can explode years later.

"I don't want to be a scaremonger, but my thoughts go to the teachers and former pupils who might be walking around with this and not know it."

Mr Henry's comments come as the Government is considering whether to reverse a judgment that stops people with pleural plaques - injury to the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos - from seeking compensation.

People with the plaques may go on to develop mesothelioma but are currently unable to make claims. If reversed, it could open the door to thousands of new cases.

Mrs Henry, who died in June 2007, worked at St Philip Howard School in Poplar and Chase Cross School in Romford. Both schools have now closed. It is believed she contracted the disease from asbestos released from the ceilings of the schools.

Mrs Henry's claim was disputed by the London Pensions Fund Authority (LPFA), which has responsibility for former employees of the Inner London Education Authority and former employees of the Greater London Council, and Havering Council.

Her husband continued the case after his wife's death, leading to an out-of-court settlement before it was due to be heard in the High Court.

Mr Henry, who is a parent, student and staff mediator at a pupil referral unit in Tower Hamlets, east London, said: "This was never about the money because nothing compensates for the loss of a loved one.

"Joan's case was strongly contested because there was a certain amount of knowledge that if we were successful, the door would be open to others.

"I hope that this case will help others receive compensation if they suffer similar tragedies."

Mr Henry described his wife, who also had multiple sclerosis, as "the most committed person" he had ever met.

"Teaching was her passion and she believed in what she was doing," he said. "It had been her whole life."

Caroline Pinfold, from Irwin Mitchell, the law firm who represented Mrs Henry, said: "We are seeing more cases like this where exposure to even low levels of asbestos in the workplace are accepted as a cause of mesothelioma."

Health and Safety Executive figures show that 182 people working in education in Britain died from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2000, although numbers are likely to be higher because work-related deaths are only recorded if the victim is below the age of 74.

Figures obtained by Paul Rowen, Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale and a former deputy head, suggest that between 75 and 90 per cent of schools still have asbestos. There are currently no rules stipulating that asbestos must be removed when schools are refurbished.

A spokesman for Havering Council said: "Mrs Henry was exposed to asbestos during her employment with Chase Cross School approximately 30 years ago.

"We profoundly regret that through her work she was exposed to this material. Our deepest sympathy is extended to her husband, friends and family."

Mike Taylor, chief executive of the LPFA, said the authority currently deals with around 12 cases relating to asbestos at any one time. Most claims are from maintenance and building workers, rather than school staff.

Mr Taylor said the authority had a contingency fund of #163;85 million to meet in excess of 400 predicted compensation claims between now and 2035. It expects claims to peak at around 25 a year in 2025 before tailing off.

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