In Booth v Amaca PL and Amaba PL (2010) NSWDDT 8, a former motor mechanic brought a claim for damages arising from his exposure, between 1953 and 1983, to asbestos in brake linings. He sued Amaca (formerly James Hardie) and Amaba, both of whom were the manufacturers of the brake linings.
Long after his asbestos exposure, Mr Booth contracted mesothelioma, a terminal condition, in 2008. He alleged that the condition, which is known for its long latency period, was the result of inhaling asbestos dust and/or fibres during his thirty years’ work as a mechanic. He contended that the liberation of asbestos fibre by grinding brake linings, in order to ensure smooth operation of the brakes, was a very dusty process which caused asbestos to collect upon his clothes, his workbench and his workshop floor.
The defendants contended that the handling of brake parts produces asbestos fibres so short that they are harmless.
Mr Booth gave evidence at the trial that for a total of 27 years, week in and week out he was exposed to asbestos fibres liberated from asbestos brake linings as the result of his own work and also the work of other people working near him.
His Honour Judge Curtis found that asbestos dust liberated from brake linings manufactured by the two defendants materially contributed to Mr Booth’s contraction of mesothelioma.
The judge also found that:
“… by 1953 – when the plaintiff began working as a motor mechanic – the inhalation of asbestos fibre by motor mechanics working on brake linings was generally recognised as dangerous, even at exposure levels below industrial standards, because of individual susceptibility to the cumulative effect of fibre inhalation, and the fact that no safe lower limit had been established.”
His Honour observed that a safety warning eventually introduced in 1978 by Amaba and placed on slips of paper in the packaging of its brake linings was entirely inadequate, because for example it warned of the possibility of “damage” to health from breathing asbestos dust but it did not warn of the possibility of death.
Judge Curtis determined that both of the defendants had failed to discharge their duty to warn Mr Booth of the dangers of asbestos, and that because of this failure he had contracted mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma was recognised in the judgment as “a most terrible disease”, and the associated chest pain was recognised as “one of the most severe pains known to man.”
At the time of the trial, Mr Booth was 73 years old and was expected to live for only another year. The Dust Diseases Tribunal of NSW awarded him $250,000 compensation for pain and suffering, $13,000 compensation for the loss of 13 years’ life expectancy, and $55,000 compensation in respect of his need for domestic care.