Symptomatic pleural plaques

In the well-known case of Rothwell v Chemical & Insulating Co Ltd [2008] 1 AC 281 the House of Lords held that Mr Rothwell and his three co-claimants who had all developed pleural plaques, areas of fibrous thickening of the pleural membrane, did not suffer from a compensable condition as they had not experienced any symptoms as a result of the plaques.

The claimants, who had developed plaques after being negligently exposed to asbestos by their employers, had not suffered damage for the purposes of creating a cause of action in tort. The Lords decided that where pleural plaques did not themselves cause any symptoms their presence was not an injury. Neither the risk of developing other asbestos related diseases (to which the plaques themselves did not contribute) nor the anxiety of that prospect amounted to actionable damage.

In their judgments however their Lordships allowed for the prospect of exceptional cases where plaques do cause symptoms. In a recent case just such a rare victim developed pleural plaques which caused such severe symptoms that they resulted in his death.

The deceased was exposed to asbestos during the course of his work as an apprentice and then qualified marine engineer on board ships.  His exposure included applying and removing asbestos lagging on pipework and boilers.

The deceased began to experience breathlessness in August 2011. CT scans and x rays investigating the cause of his symptoms revealed that he had developed extensive bilateral calcified pleural plaques.   Dr Corless, instructed by the claimant, and Dr Moore-Gillon, instructed by the defendant,  agreed that the scans showed disabling pleural plaques. His pleural plaques were extensive, contiguous and heavily calcified and so they acted like a ‘cuirass’ around the lung and restricted ventilation. The effect of the cuirass was to cause the breathlessness he first experienced as well as recurrent respiratory infections. Eventually the impairment of his lung function caused by the plaques led to bronchopneumonia.  The pneumonia caused his death in July 2016.

The claim was issued against them the deceased’s former employers and then settled for a significant sum. It is clear therefore that a diagnosis of pleural plaques does not necessarily spell the end of a claim, where plaques are symptomatic then they are as compensable as any other asbestos related disease.

Aliyah Akram acted for the Claimant in this case.


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