As a child, Caroline Wilcock and her friends fashioned mock snowballs from the gray-white dust that fell like snow and blanketed her English village of Bowburn in County Durham.
She and other village children used clumps of the substance to draw hopscotch grids. Despite the clever and fun uses of this dust, villagers and their children were unaware the powder contained deadly asbestos expelled by the nearby Cape Asbestos Company. It manufactured sheeting and corrugated roofing from the mid-1960s until it closed in the mid-1980s.
Wilcock is now a 51-year-old fashion designer in London battling mesothelioma, a terminal cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Last week, several British news outlets reported that Wilcock recently won a “substantial” legal settlement from Cape Intermediate Holdings Plc., the firm previously known as Cape Asbestos Company. The settlement amount is not public.
“My case establishes that the people of Bowburn were exposed to the dangers of asbestos over forty years ago and were largely unaware or unable to do anything to protect themselves and their children,” Wilcock told the BBC in a recent interview. “I am angry that I and other children came into contact with asbestos whilst playing in our village and around our homes, and feel certain that my case will not be in isolation.”
Doctors diagnosed Wilcock with mesothelioma in 2010. She claims Cape Asbestos Company exposed her to the deadly mineral starting at age 7, when her family settled in Bowburn in the late 1960s, until she entered college in the early 1980s, according to a report by The Northern Echo.
The report shows Wilcock developed a persistent cough, shortness of breath and frequent colds while living in Shanghai as an adult. Initially, she attributed her declining health to that city’s historic air pollution problem, but doctors later gave her the grim news that she had mesothelioma.
Malignant mesothelioma is caused almost exclusively by asbestos. It didn’t take long for Wilcock to trace her illness back to the snow she played in alongside the asbestos factory near her childhood home.
Bowburn residents told The Northern Echo that dust from the factory covered cars and windowsills. Its layers were so thick that people couldn’t hang their laundry outside to dry.
Wilcock also told the newspaper she was surprised to be the first person filing a legal claim against the company when she knew other villagers were affected by the asbestos exposure. She felt it was her duty to Bowburn to pursue her claim, and speak publicly about the incident. She encourages others to follow suit.
Cape Asbestos Company had long closed its doors by the time Wilcock learned of her injuries. Until recently, there were few legal options for British asbestos victims to file lawsuits against corporations that were no longer in existence or had changed hands.
However, a 2012 U.K. court ruling opened the door for injured employees to file legal claims against the successor corporations of companies that had gone out of business, The Northern Echo reported. Wilcock’s lawyer told the newspaper her case opened the door for Bowburn residents and their loved ones to file their own complaints against Cape Intermediate Holdings Plc.
Wilcock’s case is significant for potentially hundreds of current and former Bowburn residents who may be diagnosed with mesothelioma over the next 50 years. However, recent government reforms stemming from similar cases could hurt those victims. Her attorney told the Daily Mail he’s worried that “intended reforms to the financing of mesothelioma claims will bring an end to such public interest litigation.”
The U.K. is considering reforms that victim advocates in that country say will slow down claims payments under the nation’s mesothelioma compensation scheme. They fear those reforms will limit the ability of victims to pursue court action, subject them to sanctions for bringing claims, and generally make it easier for defendants to resist asbestos claims.
Victim advocates in the U.S. share the same concerns about proposed reforms that seemingly favor defendants. For instance, the proposed federal Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act (FACT) would give asbestos lawsuit defendants unnecessary access to detailed bankruptcy claims information.
Advocates also worry about reforms at the state level that limit successor company liability for asbestos injuries. U.S. asbestos victims have long had the ability to file legal claims against successor corporations when the companies responsible for their injuries fold. But tort reform favors pushing model legislation that would limit liability. Some states, including Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, already have enacted the reforms.
Fortunately, victim advocates on both sides of the pond are making sure their voices are heard. They are encouraging others facing similar situations to seek justice for their own claims and make sure victims’ stories are heard.
Lawmakers must be reminded that companies that profited from asbestos-containing materials, and the successor companies that took over their assets, should be held accountable for preventable injuries.