Mining giant BHP Billiton could be liable for punitive damages in other cases following the South Australian Supreme Court ruling in June 2012 that the company exposed certain workers to asbestos knowing of the health risks.
The decision upheld last year’s Adelaide District Court ruling, which awarded 82-year-old asbestosis sufferer William Parker $52,124.93 – plus $20,000 in punitive damages – for working in BHP’s Whyalla shipyards between 1971 and 1972.
The landmark victory is the first successful case (on appeal) under the South Australian Dust Diseases Act to award punitive damages against a company for ignoring the health hazards of asbestos exposure, (such as mesothelioma).
The majority of the Full Court of the Supreme Court of South Australia handed its decision down on Monday, saying that the risk to Mr Parker’s health was “foreseeable” and that BHP had failed to take reasonable steps in order to protect him, such as testing for asbestos or providing workers with protective marks and equipment.
The judgment stated that Mr Parker’s asbestosis was a result of “the systemic failure by BHP to make its workplace safe… by 1971 it was known that some exposure to asbestos could result in conditions which were incurable, irreversible and possibly fatal.”
The finding is expected to impact other South Australian asbestos compensation claims that are currently before the Courts, and possibly those in other Australian states such as New South Wales and Victoria, as well as future claims.
A number of years ago, the South Australian parliament enacted legislation to assist South Australia asbestos compensation claims. Since this time, many claims for asbestosis compensation and mesothelioma compensation have been made.