A judge has ruled a woman who died from cancer was “negligently exposed” to asbestos when she washed her husband’s dirty work clothes more than 40 years ago.
In the first case of its kind in Scots law, Lady Carmichael concluded Adrienne Sweeney was exposed to the substance when she laundered her husband William’s clothes in the 1960s.
Mr Sweeney, from Paisley in Renfrewshire, spent the decade working as a fitter at a boiler making factor in nearby Renfrew.
After coming home from work, Mr Sweeney, who died in 2008, would “cuddle” Mrs Sweeney whilst wearing overalls that were covered in dust and dirt.
The non smoker would then wash his clothes. It was whilst she did this household chore that Mrs Sweeney was exposed to asbestos.
Lady Carmichael today ruled this exposure “materially increased” the risk of Mrs Sweeney contracting mesothelioma – the illness that claimed her life in 2015.
In a written judgement, the judge ruled Mr Sweeney’s former employers, Babcock International, should pay his and his wife’s surviving relatives damages, which were undisclosed.
Lady Carmichael wrote: “This is, so far, as I can tell, the first case in this jurisdiction in which a proof has taken place dealing with secondary exposure, that is, exposure to someone in the home of an an employee, alleged to have caused mesothelioma in a secondary victim.
“I am satisfied that the defenders failed to reduce the risk to the deceased. There was no safe known level of exposure.
“For the reasons set out, I am satisfied that the defenders negligently exposed the deceased to asbestos and materially increased the risk that she would develop mesothelioma.”
The case was heard before the court last year.
Mrs Sweeney’s children Kay Gibson, 54, of Paisley, Jan Sweeney, 52, of Moscow, Ayrshire, and William Sweeney, 50, of Beith, also Ayrshire, originally sued Babcock for £50,000 as individuals.
Her eldest child Kay also sought £200,000 as the executrix of her estate with lesser sums sought by other family members.
Prior to dying aged 75, Mrs Sweeney gave a statement to a legal firm’s representative detailing her employment history and that of her late husband William.
The firm’s employee Joe McCluskey said Mrs Sweeney told him: “She said she knew there was asbestos dust on his overalls that she washed.”
Mr McCluskey, 43, said she had met Mrs Sweeney at her home in June 2015 to take notes for a statement. He said: “She was emotional, understandably. She was very lucid and able to hold a conversation without any difficulty.”
She explained her late husband, who died in 2008 aged 71, had worked at the boiler plant and came home with asbestos dust on his overalls and other clothes.
In the judgement published today, Lady Carmichael wrote lawyers acting for Mrs Sweeney’s family argued that Mr Sweeney’s employers should have done more to prevent his wife being exposed to the substance.
Lawyers for Babcock argued the evidence to prove Mrs Sweeney’s claims was insufficient. They argued it wasn’t clear as to whether and to what extent Mr Sweeney was exposed to asbestos at the boiler maker factory.
Advocate Neil Mackenzie told the court that there was nothing to suggest that warnings given to shipyards were given to factories such as boiler plant in Renfrew.
However, Lady Carmichael ruled in favour of the family.
She said: “I accept that Mr Sweeney brought dusty clothes home with him. Whether the deceased had any basis in her own knowledge or from discussion with Mr Sweeney for her statement that the clothing had asbestos dust on it, I do not know.
“I accept that the deceased shook out and washed Mr Sweeney’s work clothes in the manner described in her statement. Her statement is imprecise as to the frequency with which she did so, but I infer from what she said that this was a regular occurrence, carried out throughout the different seasons and, on the balance of probabilities, at least weekly.
“I infer the defenders knew or ought to have known that work clothes would be cleaned at home given that they did not provide clean clothing themselves.”