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Case study – ex-navy servicemen

Thousands of ex-servicemen were exposed to asbestos during their time in the Navy. Sadly, many have gone on to develop an asbestos disease including the former Governor of New South Wales, who died of mesothelioma. Turner Freeman has acted for many former Navy personnel, some who were career Navy men and others, like Judge Bob Bellear, served for just a few years.

Judge Bellear

In 1996 Judge Bob Bellear became the first Aboriginal person to be appointed as a Judge in Australia. Years before, at the age of 17, Judge Bellear enlisted in the Navy. For the next seven years he worked on board naval ships including the HMAS Cerberus, HMAS Anzac, HMAS Sydney, HMAS Hobart and the shore base HMAS Kuttabul.

Throughout this period he removed asbestos lagging on steam pipes in engine and boiler rooms. At night he slept on a hammock slung beneath asbestos lagging. He and other trainees made snowballs out of asbestos scraps.

He described his work: “I wore blue overalls at work. Because of the heat, the overalls were undone to my waist. By the end of a four hour shift I was covered in grey-white dust…it was on my hair, my body and on my overalls”. Judge Bellear left the Navy in 1968.

Nearly 40 years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer as a result of the combination of his exposure to asbestos in the Navy and his smoking. Judge Bellear instructed Turner Freeman who commenced proceedings on his behalf against the Commonwealth. Expedition was sought and granted due to the Judge’s increasingly frail condition.

Judge Bellear’s evidence was taken at his home and the matter settled just weeks before his death. Throughout his life Judge Bellear was a crusader for justice for Aboriginal people. He was a director of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Housing Committee, Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Children’s Service and the founding Director of Tranby Co-Operative College. Judge Bellear was given a State funeral with the New South Wales Parliament being suspended for the afternoon.

Les Lawler

Like Judge Bellear, Les Lawler was exposed to asbestos while serving in the Navy. Between 1943 and 1946 Les served as a stoker on the Corvette HMAS Pirie. Every two or three months Les cleaned the boilers. The fuel pumps and steam and water pipes were lagged with asbestos cloth, asbestos rope and asbestos slurry. Les had to remove the lagging and replace it whenever a repair job had to be done. He ripped the old asbestos off with his hands, cut the new cloth and stitched it around the pipe. There was no way he could avoid breathing in the dust.

The worst of it was when mines exploded near the ship making it vibrate. This caused the boiler room to look like a dust storm. Whenever the guns were fired the air was thick with asbestos dust.

Years later Les contracted mesothelioma. Despite receiving a Veterans’ Affairs pension, Les was also able to sue at common law and receive a substantial settlement prior to his death.

In addition to Navy personnel, Turner Freeman has acted for many former members of the Merchant Navy who were exposed to asbestos while working on board ships, and particularly in engine and boiler rooms.

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