TRADE unions and lawyers in the region have welcomed a court ruling on asbestos that could have implications for hundreds of claimants across the North-East and North Yorkshire.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upheld a trade union appeal and rejected arguments by insurance companies that would have denied compensation to victims of the mesothelioma, which is contracted through exposure to asbestos.

The ruling could allow thousands of insurance claims by families of people who died after exposure to asbestos, including many who worked in shipbuilding and heavy industry.

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A panel of five Supreme Court justices rules that insurance liability should begin at the time an employee was exposed to asbestos, not when symptoms appeared.

It means relatives of workers who died of mesothelioma are now free to make claims on policies dating from the 1940s.

About 2,500 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, many in the North-East.

The court ruled that the disease could be said to have been sustained by an employee in the period when it was “caused or initiated” even though it only developed at a later stage, sometimes many years later.

Commenting on the ruling, Kevin Rowan, regional secretary of the Northern TUC, said: “This is the best possible outcome for the thousands of people diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases every year – and their families who have to endure the pain and suffering with them.

“It was a nonsense that this ever had to be taken to the Supreme Court in the first place and we are delighted that common sense and decency has prevailed.”

Tom Blenkinsop, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said the ruling that people exposed to asbestos could again make claims was crucial for many older industrial workers in his constituency.

The appeal was made by Britain’s largest union, Unite, after insurance companies were partly successful in an earlier appeal.

Unite’s challenge was on behalf of the family of Charles O’- Farrell, a retired member who died of mesothelioma in 2003.

Philip Thompson, of Thompson and Co Solicitors, in Sunderland, said scores of cases have been forced to wait until a satisfactory resolution was was reached in this test case.

The verdict was welcomed last night by the Association of British Insurers.