French Asbestos Verdict Compensates Miners

October 26, 2004

A French administrative court under the jurisdiction of the national health service has ordered the owners of an abandoned asbestos mine in Corsica to pay compensation to 13 former miners and their families as a result of asbestos related diseases they contracted while working in the mine.

The court, which determined that the mine owners were guilty of “inexcusable negligence,” ordered a total of 1.5 million euros ($1.92 million) in compensation. While not large by U.S. standards, where the median verdict in asbestos cases is around $1 million, it represents the first time that a French court has found culpable negligence on the part of asbestos producers, and the first time one has awarded significant damages.

The awards range from 90,000 euros ($115,200) for individual claimants to 200,000 euros ($256,000) for the families of deceased victims. The court determined in accordance with French law that the mine’s owner, la Société minière de l’amiante (SMA), a division of Eternit, were 30 percent responsible for the victim’s condition.

The mine, located in Canari in upper Corsica, closed in 1965. At the time it employed nearly 350 people. Only around 50 are estimated to still be living. L’Association nationale de défense des victimes de l’amiante (ANDEVA) [a national organization which assists asbestos victims] announced that it was pleased with the result. The organization stressed that the level of compensation awarded by the court had been “significantly higher” than the original proposal by the FIVA (Fonds d’indemnisation des victimes de l’amiante) [a private fund set up to compensate asbestos victims].

There was no indication concerning what portion of the award, if any, would be paid by Eternit’s insurers. But the verdict raises the stakes considerably in France, and by implication in other European countries, in cases involving asbestos. Until recently, as most victims received medical treatment provided by government health plans, additional compensation has been minimal.

The French decision indicates that this may be about to change, which could have serious consequences. Researchers estimate that there are at least 100,000 persons who were exposed in one way or another to asbestos, many of whom will become ill from the exposure over the next 20 years. The number is probably equally large in other European countries.

National health services have been under increasing pressure to reduce their deficits – The French “Secu” posted over $10 billion in losses last year. As a result they can be expected to pursue such claims, along with the individual victims and their families. While the claims may not reach the proportions currently common in the U.S., they could still be sizeable.

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