A CESSNOCK man who was exposed to asbestos while working at the Newcastle steelworks has won a $2.2million damages claim against BHP Billiton.
Steven Dunning, 54, is suffering from terminal mesothelioma as a consequence of the asbestos dust he inhaled while working on BHP’s steel blast furnaces as a 19-year-old in the early 1980s.
The Dust and Diseases Tribunal yesterday found BHP had negligently exposed Mr Dunning to the asbestos, ordering it to pay him more than $2.2million in damages.
It’s the highest amount awarded in the tribunal’s history and marks the first time BHP has been ordered to pay compensation to a former employee of the Newcastle steelworks with incurable mesothelioma.
‘‘He broke down when I rang him and told him,’’ Mr Dunning’s wife, Roma, said yesterday.
‘‘The main part of it for him was that his family was looked after – that’s the thing he really cared about.’’
One of the lawyers who brought the action, Joanna Wade, said the verdict was a significant victory for Mr Dunning and his family but ‘‘it does not take away from the fact that he is dealing with an incurable, terminal disease as a result of BHP’s negligence’’.
‘‘BHP has fought this case for almost four years, arguing every available legal point,’’ Ms Wade said.
During the course of the six-week trial, it emerged that BHP knew there was no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
Despite this, the court heard BHP continued to use the substance until 1985.
‘‘I was astounded to learn that senior management within BHP knew that even short, intermittent amounts of asbestos could kill workers yet they continued to use asbestos without warning us,’’ BHP’S former general foreman John Gillespie testified during the trial.
The judgment states that BHP failed to provide adequate education and warning in relation to the wearing of masks.
‘‘A worker cannot be expected to make an informed decision about whether or not to wear a mask unless he is fully informed as to the risks of not wearing a mask,’’ the judgment states.
‘‘As a result of the failure to warn and educate and take steps to enforce the wearing of marks, the plaintiff was exposed to and inhaled asbestos dust.
‘‘He was also deprived of the opportunity of choosing not to work in that environment. He did not like the dirty work environment. I accept that if he knew it was potentially fatal, he would probably have chosen not to work in it.’’
Mrs Dunning said she was disgusted by the fervour and determination with which BHP pursued the matter through the courts, rather than ‘‘standing up and accepting responsibility for their actions’’.
‘‘Do you think any of those executives calling the shots are getting sick? Absolutely not. I just really want to urge anyone else who’s sick from asbestos to come forward,’’ she said. ‘‘Hopefully now BHP will be more accountable.’’
Mrs Dunning said their lives had changed dramatically since her husband was diagnosed with the disease.
‘‘I cannot begin to explain the devastation we felt on the day we were told he had this terminal illness,’’ Mrs Dunning said.
‘‘We are trying to make the most of every day even though Steven is still very sick and unable to do most of the things he used to enjoy.
‘‘It is a daily struggle knowing that I will not have my loving husband to grow old with and that he will never meet his grandchildren and his life will be cut so short.
‘‘We never expected this to happen.’’
BHP said it had not ruled out appealing the verdict.