James Hardie accused of using 'same old tricks' to avoid asbestos compensation

James Hardie accused of using 'same old tricks' to avoid asbestos compensation

James Hardie accused of using 'same old tricks' to avoid asbestos compensation

Updated 5 February 2018, 21:35 AEDT

Ten years after the court case that forced asbestos manufacturer James Hardie to face up to the consequences of its deadly product, the company is accused of again playing hardball with victims.

More than a decade after public uproar forced asbestos manufacturer James Hardie to return from its new home in the Netherlands and deal with the consequences of its deadly product, the company has been accused of again playing hardball with victims.

"Here we go again," lawyer Tanya Segelov told 7.30.

"Same old James Hardie, same old tricks."

Ms Segelov is highly critical of recent actions by the company's compensation fund to restrict payouts.

"They're using every means possible to not pay the judgements of a court — judgements that were made against them for people who are dying because they used a product James Hardie knew would kill them and never warned them," she said.

'I can't get my breath'

Late last year Marion Talifera lost her husband John to the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

"He went down hill very, very fast. Very fast, and he suffered dreadfully. He really did," she told 7.30.

"He really couldn't breathe, and I'd say, 'How are you John?' and he'd say, 'I can't get my breath, can't get my breath'."

The court found John contracted the cancer from exposure to Hardie's asbestos cement.

But the Hardie fund said it would only pay half the judgement, because he'd had asbestos exposure overseas.

"The court told them to pay but they're trying to get out of it," Ms Talifera said.

"And why, when they have so much money?

"For the suffering that these people, not only John but these other people go through, they should pay up."

It is not the only case where the Asbestos Fund is stopping payments.

In Victoria, it recently told plaintiffs it will no longer pay compensation where victims are unable to continue caring for a dependent, like a sick husband.

Irene Velican lost her mother to mesothelioma only days ago.

Ms Velican's parents, Joan and Peter Behrend, had renovated the family home and been exposed to asbestos dust.

Joan had been the main carer for Peter, who needs dialysis every second day.

They are the last family the Asbestos Fund will pay in Victoria for such care — and Ms Velican worries about the families to follow.

"That money will help them get Meals on Wheels, get a cleaner once a week, get somebody to come and do the grocery shopping, maybe do the lawns," she told 7.30.

"It's just those things that the other person used to do for you that they can't do because either their health is affected or that they've passed away, as is the case with my Mum."

'It's never over'

The face of the campaign 10 years ago was Bernie Banton.

He fought tirelessly for victims of asbestosis and mesothelioma, until succumbing himself in 2007.

Former minister and head of the ACTU, Greg Combet, worked alongside Banton to reach a negotiated a settlement with James Hardie.

"He was a very passionate campaigner for justice for asbestos victims," he said.

"I think he grasped the compassion of the community in that campaign and was a really important reason that we were able to succeed in getting some justice out of James Hardie at that time."

According to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA), the number of Australians dying from asbestos diseases, currently about 4,000 a year, has yet to peak.

James Hardie's legacy of asbestos cement remains in houses and buildings around the country.

The material is coming to the end of its useful life and is likely to be shedding fibres.

But removing asbestos has its own hazards.

What is needed, according to the ASEA, is education and incentives to clean up legacy asbestos safely.

Meanwhile, families suffering from asbestos diseases today worry about the families of the future.

"What about all these young people today, pulling these houses to pieces and not realising that something's happened to them, but in 10, 15 or 20 years' time when they have a young family, and suddenly they think, 'Where did I get this from?'" Ms Talfera asked.

"There was nothing labelled on it to say this is an asbestos product, so how would you know?" Mr Velican said.

"It's just boards and materials that are in the house and you're trying to fix it. It was an old house and they were trying to fix it up and make it a bit more liveable for us."

Banton's widow Karen Banton said education is the key.

"Let's get a program into our high schools, across public and private schools, to educate children, not in a scary way, but so they know when they buy that first home and they go to do renovations, that they know exactly what they're likely to be dealing with if they bought a home that was built last century," she told 7.30.

And so the fight goes on.

"It's never over," Mr Combet said.

"It's so important that the victims are well represented and cases are fought very hard on their behalf to get access to compensation."

The Asbestos Fund was contacted but declined to comment.