Asbestos victim receives landmark settlement
In a landmark settlement, Stephen Wickham has ended his court battle against Amaca Pty Limited (formerly James Hardie & Coy Pty Ltd. In 1994, Mr Wickham performed some home improvements on his house in Perth, which he had recently purchased. He removed corrugated fibro sheets from his garage and replaced part of a fence made from corrugated fibro sheets. Mr Wickham had not long been in the country- he had emigrated from England- and although he knew of the dangers of asbestos, he did not know that all fibro sheets manufactured in Australia before the mid 1980s contained asbestos. So unbeknownst to him, Mr Wickham’s home improvements exposed himself and his family to a deadly dust. It was that exposure that led to his diagnosis with mesothelioma, a fatal asbestos-related disease, nineteen years later.
Mr Wickham, represented by Turner Freeman Lawyers, alleged that Hardie should have known that home handymen in his position would be exposed to their deadly products. As a result, Hardie should have run a public awareness campaign to protect such people from the danger it had caused. Indeed, to this day home handymen are at risk of exposure to asbestos products in older houses, and the logical extension of Mr Wickham’s claim was that Hardie should continue to run such a campaign. As part of his case, Mr Wickham produced thousands of documents, some of which demonstrated that that Hardie’s parent company spent enormous amounts of money hiring private leer jets to take VIPs to the Hardie’s Bathurst 1000 it sponsored as well as sponsoring the “Life be in it” campaign. Mr Wickham argued that Hardies had the expertise and resources to run a large and effective public awareness campaign. Such a campaign could have saved his life. Although Hardie had ceased producing asbestos in the late eighties, it never ran such a campaign. More outrageously, evidence given by witnesses indicated that Hardie could have made products asbestos free from the mid 1960s had it decided to. In short, Mr Wickham alleged that Hardie was negligent by failing to protect him from its deadly asbestos product.
AMACA refused to settle
AMACA consistently refused to settle Mr Wickham’s case. It ran for two full days before settlement occurred. During those two days, Mr Wickham was able to bring a large amount of new evidence before the court, putting it forever on the public record. It is evidence that will help thousands of future victims of asbestos, particularly those in a position like Mr Wickham’s. This evidence included the revelation that Hardie’s asbestos-free products came much later than they could have. It also included revealing testimony from a former managing-director of Hardie, David MacFarlane, who declared that the dangers of asbestos were “a media beat up”.
Facing damning evidence and the prospect of a long and expensive trial, AMACA agreed to settle for a confidential sum. Although judgment was not delivered, Mr Wickham’s case nonetheless provides an evidentiary foundation for countless future claimants- those “third wave” victims of asbestos, who are exposed to the dust not at asbestos mines or in its manufacture, but during the course of home renovations. It also provides a timely warning to the home handymen of today who are working on houses built prior to 1987: take all possible precautions to avoid exposing yourself and your family to deadly asbestos dust.