Asbestos victims suffer a legal ordeal: “Many die during the process and we have to replace them with their heirs”

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Asbestos is a type of fibrous mineral composed of silicates of lime, alumina and iron. For decades, this material was one of the most popular building components in the real estate boom of Franco's regime and early democracy. In fact, it can be found in roofs, pipes, tanks, cladding or facades. Even in trains and ships. It was flexible, easy to obtain, non-combustible and cheap. But in 2002 its use was suddenly banned, when researchers noticed the unmistakable trail of death left by asbestos. Factory workers, dockers, shipyard workers, construction or industrial workers. But also family members. Even neighbours. Any group of people in direct or indirect contact with this fibre registered an abnormal increase in cancer cases, especially mesothelioma, a very rare type of deadly pleural cancer, but which in certain regions multiplied its appearance. The common factor was exposure to the deadly dust. More than twenty years after its ban, the survivors of the substance (their families, as many have died) live trapped in a judicial labyrinth. The Supreme Court has made it clear on several occasions that they are victims and must be compensated, because the companies did not provide security measures such as double lockers (so as not to mix work and home clothes) or masks. But the execution of some of these sentences is turning out to be a nightmare. For example, and according to the Ronda Collective, the cooperative of lawyers that has defended those affected by asbestos, the declaration of insolvency of Uralita in 2022, the largest manufacturer and marketer of this material in Spain during the second half of the 20th century, leaves “up to 26 million euros in unexecuted sentences,” underlines Marta Barrera, a lawyer for the collective. They are, quite simply, judicial resolutions that threaten to become a dead letter. “It is a tragic situation,” laments Barrera. In Cadiz, the platform for those affected by asbestos in the naval sector has achieved an important victory by beating Navantia in court in February. The shipping company will have to pay 500,000 euros to the widow and six children of a blacksmith who was exposed to asbestos between 1975 and 1999. “It is to date the largest compensation obtained at a national level in claims related to asbestos,” says lawyer Aida Segura Höhr, partner of the Dávila & Asociados law firm, which has been defending asbestos victims since the 1980s. In the last decade, cases of those affected by asbestos in the region can be counted in the hundreds. The specialist says that many of the workers who come to her office seeking legal advice do not live to see a sentence. The judicial bureaucracy takes an average of three years to resolve, too long when the cancer clock is ticking. “Unfortunately, many die within a few months of starting the process and we have to make the procedural substitution with the heirs. Especially in cases of mesotheliomas.”

A trail of victims

Asbestos kills workers, but also their families. “Some wives died after coming into contact with the asbestos dust that was impregnated in the overalls they washed at home,” says Ramón Dávila Guerrero, one of the first lawyers to obtain a ruling in favour of the workers in 1980. There are even neighbours who have managed to win the prize and prove that their health has been harmed by the presence of asbestos in their villages. In 2021, for example, the Supreme Court confirmed compensation of 2.3 million euros to 39 people, including for the first time residents of Cerdanyola del Vallés (Barcelona) who lived near the Uralita factory. The judicial labyrinth for filing a claim for asbestos has three phases. Firstly, victims must fight against Social Security, as the legal sources consulted agree that the Administration is iron-fisted and does not easily recognise the occupational nature of the disease, that is, that it was caused by asbestos and not by other factors such as tobacco or alcohol. This is leading families to go to court. Secondly, if the first lawsuit is won, the disability benefit (if the victim survives) or widow's pension (if the worker dies) must be updated. Finally, the most difficult part remains: the company must pay. Here things get complicated, as diseases caused by asbestos have a long latency period, that is, they can remain dormant for years. So, when the cancer shows its face, the companies responsible may have either disappeared, or mutated into other companies, or simply declared themselves insolvent. And gathering documentation and witnesses of events that occurred decades ago can be an impossible mission. Compensation varies depending on the case, as asbestos has been present practically everywhere, explains Andrea Peiró, a partner at the firm specialising in these claims, Opamianto (part of Cremades & Calvo Sotelo). “At the Ministry of Defence, it is usually 90,000 euros for widows and 9,000 euros for children,” although the lawyer knows of cases in which compensation has been recognised “of up to 700,000 euros”. In 2022, Parliament approved the creation of a compensation fund for asbestos victims. Two years later, the regulations necessary to launch the initiative have not seen the light of day.

The numbers don't add up

The Government admitted that in Spain there are “around 700 mesotheliomas on average per year”. However, in 2018, Social Security only recognised the occupational origin of twenty cases. A position that contrasts with the opinion of scientists. The University of Washington estimated that, in Spain alone, 96,804 people died from occupational exposure to the deadly fibre between 2001 and 2019. And it is foreseeable that the ball will get bigger when latent diseases come to light: according to the Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery, deaths from asbestos could reach 130,000 in 2050. Follow all the information on Economy and Business on Facebook and Twitter. Xor in our weekly newsletter

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