LONDON, November 21 /PRNewswire/ -- In a landmark test case in the High Court, Unite the union, has successfully defended the rights of vulnerable asbestos victims from insurers' attempts to avoid their liabilities.

The trade union has resisted a legal challenge by insurance companies which, if successful, could have deprived thousands of mesothelioma sufferers and their families of compensation.

The High Court today (November 21, 2008) ruled that Employers' Liability insurers remain liable to pay compensation for mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos in the work place if they insured the employer at the time the asbestos exposure occurred.

The important decision comes after a nine-week court battle in June and July 2008. Unite Joint General Secretary, Derek Simpson said: This is a hugely important victory for the victims of the deadly dust and for their families. Having to suffer or watch your relatives suffer from a slow and painful death is horrific.

Thousands of men and women across the UK have been negligently exposed to asbestos by their employers but insurers have tried and failed to use legal technicalities to escape their responsibility to pay compensation under the policies they sold to employers. They sought to avoid their liabilities while pocketing the money.

We are prepared to take on the big cases and fight for our members' rights to justice. We are delighted the High Court has protected the right of mesothelioma sufferers to obtain compensation from insurers. This decision illustrates the role and importance of Unite. Without trade unions many of these cases would never have been fought. Unite has been at the forefront of the legal and political campaign to win compensation for the victims of asbestos.

In what has become known as the mesothelioma trigger issue test case a number of insurers argued the policies they sold, to insure employers against liability for workers who were injured or suffered illness due to work, were triggered by the development of the disease rather than by the exposure to asbestos.

Often the time lapse between exposure to the deadly dust and the development of mesothelioma can take 40 years or more. If the insurance companies' defence had been successful it could have deprived thousands of asbestos victims and their families of their right to compensation.

The successful conclusion to the test case means the family of mesothelioma victim and Unite member Charles Michael O'Farrell will be a step closer to receiving GBP152,000 in compensation from his former employer's insurers Excess Insurance Company Limited.

Charles O'Farrell was a retired member of Unite who died in 2003. He 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.

Excess had refused to pay the damages citing the trigger issue defence as their reason. If the High Court had found in favour of the insurer Charles' family would not receive any compensation.

It would also mean thousands of mesothelioma victims and their families, now and in the future, would be unable to obtain compensation because by the time the worker developed the disease, if the employer who exposed them to asbestos was defunct, no insurance would exist to pay the claim.

Head of Asbestos Policy at Thompsons Solicitors, Ian McFall said: The court had to grapple with many difficult and complex legal issues in this important test case to decide the true meaning and effect of the insurance policies. The outcome is a great relief for many asbestos victims and their families and a victory for fairness, justice and common sense.

Charles' daughter, Maureen Edwards said: My dad died a painful death from mesothelioma and watching him suffer was agonising for all of us. Excess Insurance poured salt into the wound by forcing us to fight them in court to receive compensation which we had already been awarded but they refused to pay.

My dad would have been proud today that, with the backing of his union, we have finally achieved justice for him. But he would have been disgusted by the lengths the insurers went to get out of paying.

Notes to Editors 1) Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung caused by exposure to asbestos. There is no cure and more than 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with the disease. 2) For decades the Employers' Liability insurance industry had accepted that the insurer on cover at the time of the asbestos exposure was liable to pay in a mesothelioma claim. A number of Employers' Liability insurers began to refuse to pay out in mesothelioma claims after a Court of Appeal case (Bolton MBC v Municipal Mutual Insurance Ltd (2006) EWCA Civ 50) which ruled that, in Public Liability insurance, the insurance policy is triggered by the development of the mesothelioma. The insurers raising the trigger issue defence to avoid paying claims argued that the same interpretation should be applied to Employers' Liability mesothelioma claims. 3) Compensation for the asbestos-related condition pleural plaques was ended last year by the House of Lords as a result of a test case brought by the insurance industry. People with pleural plaques had previously been entitled to compensation since 1984. It is estimated that as a result of ending the right to compensation for pleural plaques the insurance industry has saved approximately GBP1.4 billion.

Unite Media Contact Ciaran Naidoo: +44(0)7768-931-315