Asbestos dust and the corporate veil… revisited

asbestos claimFrom the Metro 17/01/12:

When Korah Leah came home from his job clearing asbestos his children would fling their arms around him the minute he arrived.

As a worker in the 1930s he had no idea he was putting their lives at risk when he hugged the youngsters in his dust-caked overalls.

But now, long after his death from cancer in 1968, two of his children have died from asbestos-related illnesses and a further six have irreversible lung damage.

‘It’s a terrible thing to happen to one family,’ said Maureen McGeogh who lost sisters Marjorie, 67, and Cecelia, 77, within six months of each other.

She said her father would be ‘covered in dust’ when he came home from work as a foreman in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

‘We’d all crawl all over him and hug him. I remember my mother shaking his overalls and dust going everywhere. We didn’t realise it was dangerous,’ added Mrs McGeogh, 73, of Luddenden, West Yorkshire.

Her only two siblings not affected by pleural plaques – which can develop into malignant mesothelioma – were born after their father left Cape Asbestos in 1958.

The family has been denied compensation for years as none of them worked directly with asbestos.

I came across this story in the Metro a couple of weeks ago which reminded me of a rather poignant article I read during my LLM. (Yes, I know: I surprised myself, too).

I remember it formed part of our rather painful and protracted analysis of the methods, means and history of piercing the corporate veil under English law. Those early weeks seemed entirely taken up with reading a shedload on the Adams v Cape Industries litigation - all that toxic tort (quote-unquote) stuff made for such cheerful reading. In fact, if memory serves, it formed the first formative assessment we had to prepare for the company law module.

The article itself was a subtle (and not-so-subtle) indictment of the way the corporate form could be legitimately abused utilised in managing the threat of multi-billion dollar lawsuits from hazardous business activities. The fact the threat was being ‘managed’ decades after the hideous risks came to the surface (which were supressed with the effectiveness with which a certain group of modern newspapers might be proud) was something of a fly in the ointment that their Lordships had to grapple with once the case reached the House of Lords. 

But what always struck me as so chilling was the fact it wasn’t just the mine and factory workers who were struck down by deadly asbestos dust  Day to day contact with the Cape workers (and the dust on their clothing) meant that their families became even more unwitting victims too.  And it wasn’t just the ‘shop floor’ workers who were affected; it was many of the Cape executives who were responsible for supressing those deadly facts for all those years.

If you fancy reading more (just in case January hadn’t depressed you enough already) here are the details:

G. Tweedale and L. Flynn, ‘Piercing the Corporate Veil: Cape Industries and Multinational Corporate Liability for a Toxic Hazard 1950-2004, (2007) 8 Enterprise and Society 268-296.


  1. I read this post late last night and it almost made my head hurt, when I was trying to think of ways that those family members could claim off the companies...

    At first I thought 'vicarious liability', but then when those workers came home, they weren't exactly acting 'in the course of their employment', were they?

    BTW one of my clients had a successful claim against Cape... Albeit not for asbestos. :P

    So, what's the answer then, Michael?? It's killing me! :D

  2. Could they not try and claim environmental exposure?

    (I don't have all the answers btw)...

  3. Can you just please shut your cave for one minute, please? You're only writing this blog to feel important.

  4. Anon - hehe... I blog for many reasons, but I assure you, feeling important is not one of them. ;-)


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