South Australian father of three, Matthew Werfel, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2017 after finding a lump in his groin. Mr Werfel worked as a fencing contractor as a teenager and was found to have been exposed to asbestos dust during that role. He was also significantly exposed whilst carrying out renovations to his family home in the mid-2000s.
Mr Werfel was completely unaware that the walls of his home in Adelaide were built using sheets containing asbestos. Over the course of a month or so, he spent his weekends sanding down the sheets in order to paint them, releasing harmful dust into the air in the process. The manufacturer of the sheets was a company called James Hardie, now known as Amaca. Mr Werfel’s condition is terminal and lawyers brought a damages claim on his behalf, on the basis that the building materials company had a duty of care to members of the public but failed to warn them about the known risks of disturbing asbestos contained in its older products.
‘Amaca had the resources with which it could and should have taken steps to minimise or obviate the risk of death’ – Judge Leonie Farrell
The total compensation figure awarded by Judge Leonie Farrell of the South Australian Employment Tribunal was $3,077,187, the highest ever made in Australia to a victim of asbestos related disease. It was comprised of damages for pain and suffering, future economic loss, medical expenses and Mr Werfel’s shortened life expectancy. In a statement following the judgement, 42 year old Mr Werfel said “On the one hand this outcome is a great relief, knowing that my family will be taken care of. But it’s heart-breaking to think how many people continue to be exposed, without their knowledge, to asbestos in their homes and workplaces.”
The Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia welcomed the decision and their spokesperson Lesley Shears commented “James Hardie should read this judgement very closely and finally do what they should have done decades ago by carrying out a serious, large-scale public education campaign that tells the public what the risks are, how to identify them, and what can be done to have the asbestos safely removed. It is not good enough to pay compensation to people after they are diagnosed with an incurable disease; James Hardie should be doing everything possible to prevent people from being exposed in the first place.”
This tragic case highlights how vital it is to always consider the possible health risks before undertaking any home improvements or property development work. Any buildings constructed in the UK prior to the year 2000 could have been built with materials containing asbestos and there is no safe level of exposure. Where in any doubt, homeowners are urged to get advice from specialist contractors who have the necessary licensing and expertise to handle the deadly material and can also dispose of it safely and legally. The Health and Safety Executive’s website has a useful FAQs section and local authority environmental health teams can also provide free advice.
If you or someone you know has been affected by an asbestos-related disease and you would like some no obligation legal advice, then please contact our personal injury team on 01616 966 229.