Asbestos diseases: rights for New Zealand citizens

In 2017, Elva brought a claim against her late husband’s previous employer for asbestos exposure from washing his work clothes. However, despite her case being the first of its kind in New Zealand, it is not unusual; hundreds of similar cases have been won in other countries from negligent asbestos exposure.

What is asbestos?

A naturally-occurring mineral made up of many small fibres, asbestos was popular due to its strength and resistance to heat, wear and chemicals. It was mainly used in cladding, insulation, vehicle brakes, textiles and some appliances, such as oven gloves and in ironing boards.

For many years, thousands of products in home and commercial buildings contained asbestos.

In the early 1980s, the health risks of asbestos became more widely known and usage was stopped.  However, many traces of asbestos still exist in products around the home, particularly in dwellings built before 1984.  

What are the health risks?

Moving, breaking or damaging asbestos causes the small fibres to become airborne. These fibres are then inhaled and get lodged in airways and lungs.

Asbestos has been known to cause a number of illnesses, including:

  • Asbestosis
  • Mesothelioma
  • Lung cancer, and
  • Asbestos-related pleural plaques

Some asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, can take more than 30 years to show symptoms.

Elva’s story

Elva developed mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos dust by washing her husband’s clothes.

Her husband Patrick, who worked in James Hardie’s Auckland factory for more than 20 years, died of lung cancer in 1992 having never smoked. He often brought home offcuts for the family to use in home renovations, with her work overalls covered in dust.

Elva was concerned for her three children, and their risk of potential illness due to asbestos exposure.

"Their father always played with them when he came home from work. They were always about when I was washing the clothes," Elva says.

Maurice Blackburn Principal Jonathan Walsh, who represented Elva, said although this type of claim was a first in New Zealand, hundreds of claims had been successful in Australia.

"People like Elva who suffered from asbestos exposure outside of work, such as through washing clothes or through home renovations, may not be aware these avenues exist.”

What happens if I’ve been exposed?

 In New Zealand, there are two schemes that can assist you if you’ve been exposed to asbestos through the negligence of someone else. The schemes are:

  • A statutory scheme: if you’ve been exposed to asbestos at work, you can claim lump sum entitlements with the ACC
  • A common law scheme: if you’ve been exposed to asbestos outside of work, you may be able to bring a common law claim in the court

You must bring a claim during your lifetime and time limits apply. For example, you only have six months from the date of diagnosis to make a statutory claim, although sometimes this timeframe can be extended if there are appropriate reasons.

Next steps

Speak to a lawyer quickly if you’ve been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. We can help determine where your asbestos exposure is likely to have come from and identify who might have been negligent.

It won’t cost you a cent to find out where you stand, and our team can travel to your home to meet with you to discuss your rights and entitlements. In most cases, we will act on a no win, no fee* basis.

*conditions apply.

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Jonathan Walsh

Maurice Blackburn Brisbane
Jonathan Walsh is a Principal and the Queensland practice group leader for asbestos law and dust diseases, based in Maurice Blackburn’s Brisbane office. Jonathan is also a Law Society of NSW Accredited Specialist in Personal Injury (Dust Diseases). This additional qualification stands him head and ...

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