The unusually long latency period of between 15 to 40 or even 50 years from initial asbestos exposure, too often, means the victims of asbestosis disease or the incurable malignant cancer, mesothelioma, may only have between 4 to 12 or possibly, 18 months left to live after asbestosis symptoms appear and diagnosis confirmed.
A death which has occurred from an industrial disease is considered an unnatural death under the Coroner’s Act 1988 and an inquest must take place to establish and record the cause of death. Even though the Registrar is under a statutory duty to report a death to the Coroner, those deaths which are asbestos related are commonly reported by the spouse, other members of the family, GP, Consultant and /or Solicitor of the Deceased.
The Coroner will make inquiries with a view to answering four key questions at the subsequent inquest:
Who has died?
When did they die?
Where did they die?
How did they die, i.e. the cause of death.
The Coroner’s role to determine circumstances and cause of death will require evidence to be gathered from medical records, witnesses, pathologists, police statements, and where appropriate, a post-mortem report, before reaching a decision. An inquest is usually opened and then adjourned whilst investigations continue. Once completed, a full inquest date will be set, during which, the Coroner will give their conclusion to the cause of death and pronounce a verdict.
When an asbestos disease such as mesothelioma is suspected, samples of tissue are usually analysed by a pathologist to determine the asbestos fibre count within the dried lung. Up to 30,000 fibres of asbestos per gram of dried lung is considered normal but where asbestosis is thought to be present, a minimum of 100,000 fibres at least can be found. An asbestos fibre count is less important with mesolethioma as asbestos exposure is the only known cause.
The pathologist will then prepare a post-mortem report for the Coroner, which may also show any other conditions that the Deceased was suffering, and affected life expectancy. The findings may influence a subsequent assessment of an asbestosis or mesothelioma compensation award.
Subject to the Coroner’s verdict confirming cause of death as ‘asbestos-related’, a civil mesothelioma claim can be commenced. An asbestosis lawyer will advise a family throughout the process and help the Coroner by providing any statement(s) made by the Deceased or any witnesses, details of previous employments and exposure to asbestos, and may wish to question the Pathologist if any issues arise from the post-mortem report.