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Written on 16th April 2019 by Laura Magson

Information for bereaved family members of those with asbestos related illnesses

We act for bereaved families who have often lost a loved one due to asbestos related illness, such as mesothelioma or lung cancer.

What is an inquest?

An inquest is a judicial enquiry to find the answers to a set of questions:

  • Who has died?
  • How did the death occur?
  • What was medical cause of death?
  • When did the death occur?
  • Where did the person die?

The cause of death is usually the focus of the inquest. The inquest is not intended to attribute blame or responsibility for the death of a loved one, nor does it deal with any criminal liability.

What does the Coroner do?

Coroners are independent judicial officers. They are responsible for establishing why a person has died and the circumstances in which the death took place. The Coroner’s involvement is unrelated to any claim for compensation, however, a Coroner’s verdict of “industrial disease” as the cause of death can be used to support a claim. Coroners are responsible for investigating unnatural, violent or sudden deaths of an unknown cause. These include deaths following an industrial disease such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Should I report a death to the Coroner?

If a loved one dies from an asbestos-related illness, or there is concern that a death is in someway linked to asbestos, a request for investigation into the death will be carried out by a Coroner. The death is usually reported to the Coroner by the medical staff or GP treating the person who has died. If you suspect that the death was caused by an asbestos-related illness and you think that the death has not been reported to a Coroner, then we would recommend that you report the death to the Coroner yourself. This is particularly important if there is an ongoing claim for compensation, as the Coroner’s verdict and findings will become part of the evidence in a civil claim.

Will there be a post mortem?

A post mortem may be required to establish exactly how the deceased person died. We understand that the thought of a post mortem is unpleasant, but in many circumstances, Coroners can decide that a post mortem does not need to be carried out if a conclusive biopsy was taken during the person’s lifetime (for mesothelioma). In our experience the coroner’s officers are very sensitive and will keep you informed of the process so that the funeral or other service can be held in accordance with your wishes. The decision to hold a post mortem rests with the Coroner and the post mortem is performed by a pathologist. If a post mortem is necessary, it will usually be performed within a few days of someone passing away.  Small tissue samples are often taken during the post mortem for examination.

What happens to any samples taken during the post mortem examination?

The Coroner or Coroner’s Officer will ask you what you would like to do with the tissue samples once the investigation has been completed. We would urge anyone who has an ongoing claim for compensation or is considering one in the future to ask for the samples to be retained. It is extremely important that these tissues are not destroyed and we recommend that you ask for them to be retained as they may be needed for further analysis as they form part of the evidence required for a civil claim for compensation. If you have a civil claim in progress, we will write to the Coroner on your behalf to ensure that these tissues samples are preserved. In some cases, we instruct an independent pathologist to review the tissue samples to provide a report for the ongoing case. The defendants are also entitled to instruct their own expert and should not be deprived of the opportunity to do so by the lung samples being destroyed.

What happens after the post mortem?

Once the post mortem has been carried out, the Coroner releases the body for the funeral or cremation. All receipts for funeral expenses should be kept as they can be included in a compensation claim. After reading the pathologist’s report from the post mortem the Coroner will decide whether an inquest is required. In most cases involving asbestos, the Coroner will open and then adjourn (postpone) the inquest, providing details of the actual inquest dates once it has been set.

At this point, the Corner will also issue an interim death certificate. This certifies that the death has occurred and should enable all insurance claims to be processed. However, it cannot be used to register to death; that comes about when the final death certificate is issued after the inquest.

The interim death certificate will, however, allow the estate to be administered and if there is a will, you can apply for a Grant of Probate. If a will was not made, the next of kin may apply for a document called a Grant of Letters of Administration. Click here for advice from our wealth protection team who can help with the probate process.

Preparations for an inquest?

Once the inquest is opened by the Coroner, it could be a number of months or even years until the actual hearing takes place. Usually with asbestos-related claims, it takes place within a few months, but the length of the wait can vary by district. During the inquest hearing, the Coroner may ask witnesses to give evidence in person. The Coroner will also rely on medical reports and letters from treating physicians, GPs and other clinicians. If the deceased passed away in a hospice, records from the hospice could be read out at the inquest.

Before the inquest, the Coroner will direct whether or not a post mortem needs to be performed; obtain any medical records, letters or reports from hospitals, surgeries, care homes, hospices; obtain statements from any relevant witnesses. If the deceased gave us a lifetime statement then we will disclose the statement to the Coroner with the family’s permission.

If someone has passed away without making a statement or solicitors have not previously been instructed, the family may be asked to provide a summary of the deceased’s employment history and any likely asbestos exposure. The Coroner often reads out the statement and can ask the family questions. Please be reassured that the Coroner, Coroner’s officer and ushers are very sensitive and are used to dealing with people who have recently suffered a personal loss. We attend many inquests and are always pleased to see the sensitive way in which the staff approach the family during this very emotional time.

Will I have to read a statement out?

If you have provided a statement and you think that giving evidence at the inquest will be too difficult or distressing for you, then you should let the Coroner or Coroner’s officer know, as it may be possible to make arrangements for your statement to be read out on your behalf. We are also happy to liaise with the Coroner on your behalf. On the day of the inquest the witnesses providing evidence will be questioned by the Coroner. Either you or your representative will be able ask the witnesses questions. We often attend inquests and can provide you with any support and assistance needed, if necessary.

What conclusion will the Coroner reach?

At the end of the inquest the Coroner records what is now known as ‘the conclusion’ (previously known as a ‘verdict’). If the Coroner is satisfied that the death occurred as a result of asbestos exposure during employment, he/she may well record the conclusion as “industrial disease”. The Coroner is not able to attribute blame to any individual or company and cannot imply that there is any civil or criminal liability. The Coroner’s role is to consider the evidence heard to decide who the deceased was, where they died, when they died and what the cause of the death was. 

Aside from ‘industrial disease’, the following conclusions can also be used:

  • Accidental death – the cause of death was unnatural, but not unlawful; Misadventure – a very similar ‘verdict’ to ‘accidental death’, but the implication is that the deceased has taken a deliberate action that has then resulted in their own death;
  • Natural causes – the death was caused by the normal development of a natural illness or disease;
  • Suicide – the deceased has voluntarily and consciously acted to end their own life;
  • Neglect – a gross failure to provide the deceased with their basic needs such as food, drink, warmth and medicine. In order for the Coroner to reach this conclusion there must be a clear link between the gross failure and the death.
  • Unlawful killing – the deceased came about their death by murder, manslaughter, infanticide or through a significant driving offence;
  • Open verdict – the Coroner determines there is not enough evidence to return a conclusion. This ‘verdict’ is ideally only used as a last resort.

What is a pre-inquest review hearing?

The Coroner is allowed to hold a pre-inquest review (PIR) at any time during the course of an investigation and before an inquest. PIRs are usually held in more complex investigations where there is a need for issues to be aired prior to the inquest which cannot easily be dealt with by email. The purpose of PIR is to ensure that the inquest is managed effectively, efficiently and openly. Families and other participants are able to raise issues, particularly contentious issues on key topics so that surprises can be avoided. There is an agenda in advance of the PIR which is tailored to the individual case and includes issues to be raised by the Coroner at the PIR, such as: 

  • Identity of interested persons
  • Inquest
  • Whether a jury is required
  • Matters for further investigation
  • Provisional list of witnesses
  • Disclosure
  • Date of the next PIR hearing
  • Date of inquest
  • Length of inquest and venue for hearings.

Other agenda items may include:

  • Anonymity of witnesses
  • Special measures for witnesses (including video links and screens)
  • Public to be excluded for part of the inquest
  • Need for an interpreter

Will the media be present?

An inquest is a public hearing. The Coroner has produced a guidance note for Coroners and the media which can be seen here. Coroners encourage sensitivity and respect for privacy of the families of the deceased, but fair and accurate reporting of the proceedings is also necessary.

Notice of the final inquest hearing, including the date, time and place of the inquest is available to the public in advance and can be found on on the local authority website including the name of the Coroner and whether there will be a jury, the name and age of the deceased and the date and place of the deceased’s death The medical cause of death, circumstance of the death or the likely conclusion of the inquest is never included on any local authority website.

Where possible, any issues regarding the media (such as anonymity of the screening of witnesses or media restrictions) should be addressed in advance of the pre-inquest review.

All inquest hearings including pre-inquest review hearings must be recorded by the court and the Coroner keeps the recording.

The media may ask for access to documents referred to in any inquest proceedings. The request must come from a genuine journalist and the request must be for a properly journalistic purpose. The request must list precisely the documents sought and explain why they are required. The media is not entitled to see documents which are not referred to in court.

Is there an alternative verdict to the short form conclusions?

The Coroner has no obligation to use a short form conclusion. They can use a narrative conclusion setting out the circumstances of the death in a more detailed way based on the evidence that the Coroner has heard. If the deceased passed away due to mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis, then the Coroner may well record a conclusion along the lines of “by exposure to asbestos fibres during the course of his occupation as a carpenter/plumber/lagger” and insert the conclusion of “industrial disease” on the inquisition form.

If the deceased’s cause of death was mesothelioma, but they were not exposed to asbestos during the course of employment, rather they were exposed during self-employment or perhaps from the washing of a family member’s overalls, the Coroner may decide to use a narrative verdict to express the very specific activities that brought them into contact with asbestos.

Will a jury be needed at an inquest?

In some circumstances, a jury will be used at an inquest, for example, if the death occurred whilst the person was in police custody or if the Coroner believes a jury is needed in the interests of the public. Juries are not normally used cases involving asbestos-related diseases.

If the Coroner does not record the death as “industrial disease” will I still have a claim?

You may still be able to make a successful claim for compensation. For example, where the deceased was a smoker and passed away due to lung cancer, exposure to asbestos is known to be more likely to cause lung cancer in a smoker than in someone who didn’t smoke. the risk of smoking and asbestos in relation to lung cancer are multiplicative. Civil claims for lung cancer are not straight forward, often relying on pathological and engineering evidence to succeed, and should be handled by specialist solicitors experienced in this type of claim. If your loved one passed away due to lung cancer and has a significant history of exposure to asbestos, during employment, we would advise you to contact specialist solicitors as soon as possible.

How can Boyes Turner help a bereaved family at an inquest?

Our asbestos disease specialists are experienced in representing bereaved families at inquests and are familiar with the inquest process.

 Sometimes we are instructed by someone when they are already very ill from mesothelioma, and they pass away during the course of their case. It may be necessary for us to attend the inquest with the bereaved family, particularly if the evidence is important for the case, but on other occasions, the Coroner may be satisfied with the documents that they have (including life time witness statements and pathology reports sent to them by us) and the inquest can be done ‘on the papers’ without the need for a hearing. In other cases we are contacted by the bereaved family for the first time when they need help with the inquest and we can either represent them at the inquest or assist with the preparation. 

If you are considering a potential claim now or might be in the future, it is important that specialist lawyers are notified about any inquest both to ensure that all available evidence is given to the Coroner including statements which will support any future claim relating to asbestos exposure. Ask experts in this field with extensive industry knowledge we can often obtain help gather essential evidence at this critical stage in any claim. Please do contact us for more information about this service.