The Guardian 25 May, 2005

Greedy BHP fights asbestos claims

Australia’s biggest company is trying to deny South Australian asbestos sufferers access to the Dust Diseases Tribunal. The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia are demanding urgent state government action in the wake of BHP Billiton’s challenge to a former employee’s right to gain compensation through the NSW Dust Diseases Tribunal.

Thousands of South Australians, infected while working at BHP or James Hardie, could be ruled out of compensation by a High Court decision that forces Trevor Schultz to seek redress through the South Australian Supreme Court.

BHP unsuccessfully challenged Mr Schultz’s right to access the Tribunal through the NSW Supreme Court but succeeded on appeal to High Court of Australia.

"This could be a major blow to South Australian asbestos sufferers and their families", Victims Association secretary, Terry Miller, warns. "BHP has obviously run this case because it believes it will have to pay victims less.

"The other serious problem is time. Many asbestos disease sufferers don’t have a lot of it and the South Australian court system is clogged up.

"Traditionally, we have had access to the NSW Tribunal but there is a big question mark over that now. We have been trying to get our own Dust Diseases Tribunal set up for some time and this makes it urgent."

There are more than 600 new mesothelioma cases diagnosed in Australia every year and South Australia has the highest per capita rate of mesothelioma in the world.

The majority of mesothelioma sufferers die within 12 months of diagnosis.

Miller fears the BHP "victory" could impact on thousands of South Australians who suffer a range of asbestos-related conditions. Just last weekend, former BHP Whyalla employee, Bill Ewins, died, after successfully running his compensation claim through the Victorian Supreme Court.

He had been awarded $200,000 but never lived to see the cheque.

"It’s some small consolation to actually see the cheque and know your family is provided for", Mr Miller said. "It gives a lot of our members a sense of closure."

He described NSW’s Dust Diseases Tribunal as "not perfect but still world’s best practice".

Its advantages, he said, included its speed, relative informality, and the size of payouts awarded to victims and their families.

"Because of BHP’s actions we need urgent change and that’s what we’ve told the government." BHP Billiton more than doubled its half-year profit to last December to an Australian record of more than $3.5 billion.

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