December 16, 2005

UK Judge Says Smokers Responsible for Own Health

LONDON (Reuters) - A UK judge has cut compensation to the widow of a smoker who died of asbestosis, saying that tobacco smokers must take responsibility for their own health, and warned that his ruling could affect future payouts.

Mr Justice Stanley Burnton cut by 20 percent a payout to the widow of a dockyard worker who died of asbestosis because of the worker's own "contributory negligence" in failing to give up smoking.

The judge said on Friday it was "surprising" that no English court had ever before been asked to decide whether smoking is "negligent." He said his ruling was likely to have an impact on many other compensation cases.

"Medical experts say that people who were exposed to asbestos are more likely to develop mesothelioma if they are smokers. Therefore there are likely to be a number of other cases that are affected by this," said Fraser Whitehead, a partner at law firm Russell Jones & Walker.

But he added: "It's quite a harsh judgment. I suspect it will be appealed, and I suspect it will be successfully appealed."

Insurance industry figures said the judgment was unlikely to lead to a wave of cases in which insurers seek to use this ruling to reduce compensation awards for asbestos-related illness claimants.

"Will it set a precedent that will see people fight these cases more regularly? Probably not," said David Ross, a spokesman for Norwich Union, Britain's biggest general insurer. "Is it going to affect insurance premiums? Probably not."

"It's an unusual set of circumstances, and the vast majority of asbestos cases are not likely to be influenced by a judgment like this," Ross said.