In the first case of its kind in New Zealand, the widow of a long-time James Hardie employee has taken legal action against the company for its failure to protect her family from asbestos exposure.
Mrs. Elva Halliday, age 84, is suffering from malignant pleural mesothelioma, likely due to the fact that she was regularly exposed to asbestos dust from her husband’s clothes, which she shook out and washed almost daily for many years.
Her asbestos claim against Hardie will be a landmark case for the country of New Zealand, though so-called “washerwoman” suits have been forged and settled in many other countries throughout the world, including neighboring Australia.
James Hardie Industries is a building products manufacturer, a self-proclaimed world leader in fiber cement siding and backerboard. The company was – most notably – a key player in asbestos mining and manufacturing in Australia for a sizeable portion of the 20th century.
As a result, generations of Hardie employees – including miners and factory workers – were exposed to the toxic mineral, and even when it became evident that exposure was dangerous and even deadly, Hardie failed to protect its employees.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the company began to put warnings on its so-called “Fibro” products, proclaiming that they contained asbestos that could be hazardous to one’s health.
In the mid-1980s, Hardie scientists finally developed an asbestos-free fiber technology and the company began to produce and distribute asbestos-free products shortly thereafter.
But all of that was too late for Mrs. Halliday and, potentially, for her children, who were also exposed to her husband’s asbestos-covered work clothes each and every day.
Halliday told a New Zealand newspaper that whenever she thinks back on those days, she fears for her grown children, whose future may also hold a diagnosis of mesothelioma or some other asbestos-related disease.
Husband Patrick died in 1992 of lung cancer. He had worked for Hardie Industries for a little more than twenty years, employed in the factory where the asbestos-containing fiberboard was produced.
He had never smoked a day in his life, his wife says.
“He came home covered in dust, I washed his clothes, we got on with life,” Mrs. Halliday states, quite simply.
In the meantime, her lawyers believe they have a solid chance of winning compensation for the elderly widow, who is truly suffering with symptoms such as difficulty breathing, incessant coughing, shortness of breath, severe chest pain, and more.
She recently completed a round of chemotherapy.
“Her condition is only caused by asbestos, and we think that, judged by a fair assessment of the evidence before the court, that the case will be successful,” said her attorney, Jonathan Walsh.
“As hundreds of cases brought in Australia prove – these cases have been brought successfully – James Hardie didn’t take reasonable steps.”
Walsh hopes that once this case is won that other New Zealanders will recognize that they have options for compensation that stretch outside of the national healthcare system.