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Written on 11th August 2016 by Laura Magson

At Boyes Turner, we have successfully concluded a number of cases involving clients who were exposed to asbestos while working on ships for the Royal Navy or Merchant Navy. 

The engine rooms of ships would often be insulated with asbestos for fire protection purposes. Furthermore, ships would usually contain pipes which were lagged with asbestos. When repairs were carried out, the lagging would often have to be removed, releasing toxic dust and fibres into the air to be inhaled. Upon completion of the repairs, the pipes would then have to be re – lagged with asbestos, causing further exposure for people working on board the ship.

This has resulted in many people being diagnosed with asbestos related diseases, sometimes up to around 60 years later. However, the right to claim compensation can vary greatly, depending on whether someone was working in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy.

The 1947 Crown Proceedings Act barred lawsuits from being brought against the Ministry of Defence over injuries suffered by the services personnel. This meant that anyone exposed to asbestos in the Royal Navy would not be able to bring a claim against the Ministry of Defence as they would be protected by Crown Immunity.

Thankfully, this was repealed by the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987. However, it is not retrospective. As such, anyone who was exposed to asbestos when working in the Royal Navy before 1987 is still not able to claim compensation from the Ministry of Defence.

This means that we have the seemingly ridiculous position that people who were exposed to asbestos on ships while working in the Merchant Navy are able to bring a claim through the courts, but someone doing exactly the same job in the Royal Navy is unable to do so.

As well as being manifestly unjust, it also seems to contravene the Military Covenant, which pledges the state to ensure that military personnel are not at a disadvantage, compared to those in civilian life, because of their service.

This has been challenged by the courts but without success. It therefore seems that only Parliament can correct this injustice. Unfortunately, as yet, there seems to be little appetite to do so.