Lawyer Warns of UK Liability Threats

Insurers have been warned they face a range of new and growing liability threats in the year ahead.

David Tait, partner with global law firm Clyde & Co, has warned claims relating to exposure to glyphosate and diesel fumes during the course of an individual’s employment could be set to rise in frequency in 2020 in the UK. The rising levels of addiction to opioid painkillers are also set to be a major challenge he added.

Mr Tait told a conference in London there had already been claims in the UK related to exposure to diesel fumes. This, he explained, raised the likelihood of diesel fumes becoming a significant issue for employers’ liability insurers in 2020.

“I think we’re likely to see an increase in claim numbers,” he added. “Although none have been successful in the UK yet, it will only need one win to potentially open the floodgates. At present, the scientific evidence is not absolutely nailed down but the assertion is that exposure to diesel fumes can lead to conditions such as dermatitis, asthma and other lung conditions.

“Some researchers have suggested that 1-in-14 cases of dementia are related to pollution. There is also a potential increase in the risk of motor neurone disease.”

Opioid addiction was another area that Mr Tait felt had “more of a chance” of leading to litigation in the UK.

“According to one case in the US, it will take $17 billion and 30 years to cure opioid addiction in the state of Oklahoma alone. Here in the UK, one study has suggested that half-a-million people have been prescribed opioid-based medication for a period of over three years.”

He warned that US litigation surrounding exposure to the chemical glyphosate in the form of the weed killer Roundup highlighted a potential issue. While there have been no successful UK claims to date, the scale of US pay outs is a concern for the industry, particularly as the scientific evidence is not conclusive.

While talc-related claims in respect of asbestos related disease have increased in the US during the last few years, Tait did not consider it likely that the UK would see similar claims due to tougher demands on scientific evidence and the difficulty in establishing a causative link between the talc and the asbestos condition.

Asbestos-related lung conditions including mesothelioma remain significant in the UK at round 2,500 deaths per year although the expectation is that numbers will begin to decrease from 2020 onwards due to the age of claimants and the reduction in the use of asbestos during the 1980s. The group most likely to make claims now are former construction workers from the 1970s and 1980s.

He added the potential impact of a review of bereavement damages in England and Wales. At present, there is a disparity between Scotland’s system and that in England and Wales. In Scotland, the range of family members who can claim following an individual’s death include their spouse, parents, children, siblings and grandchildren; in England and Wales, only the spouse can make a claim. Moves are also being mooted to move the system in England and Wales from fixed statutory payments to each claim being evaluated on its own merits.

If accepted, these changes would lead to dramatic changes in fatal claims values in the UK. Tait gave the example of bereavement damages in England and Wales currently attracting around £13,000, whereas in Scotland the family claims could be high as £240,000.

Mr Tait said: “There is a fairly concerted campaign in England and Wales to adopt these changes to fatal claims values. If accepted, the changes would also affect all fatal claims including road traffic accidents and accidents while at work.”