10:35 am, Thursday 21 February, 2008
Source: WA News
An Italian migrant who worked for 17 years as a mechanic for Ford has been awarded $840,000 after contracting asbestosis while servicing car brakes, in a landmark ruling that could pave the way for a new wave of asbestos compensation cases.
Antonino Lo Presti, 58, was employed in the workshop of two WA Ford dealerships from 1970 to 1987 before being diagnosed with the deadly disease in July 2001. He also worked as a mechanic in a service station from 1988 to 1994.
Justice Andrew Beech found yesterday that Mr Lo Presti would not have contracted asbestosis if the Ford Motor Company of Australia had warned him of the dangers of exposure to asbestos and implemented safety measures.
The Supreme Court decision, believed to be the first of its kind in Australia, could lead other mechanics to bring claims against car dealerships, garages and service centres, according to Mr Lo Presti’s lawyer, Michael Magazanik.
After hearing the decision yesterday, Mr Lo Presti, who breathes with the aid of a mobile respirator, spoke of his joy at winning the case. But, in broken English, the Sicilian-born father of three said he had a terrible life.
“Now I can go on with my life. Thanks for the judge for what he done finding that the company was guilty. It’s been 30 years,” he said. “Never ever (were we given any warnings), just in the last few years.”
His wife Connie said the fiveyear court battle, including a 15-day trial last year, had taken its toll on the family. She had to work to put food on the table and Mr Lo Presti’s health had deteriorated.
“I’m happy it’s over so that we can get on with our lives. It’s been a really tough five years,” she said. “If anyone had told me when it was diagnosed I would have said, ‘no, it can’t happen’. In one way (I feel betrayed) because they (Ford) should let their workers know and give them a safer workplace.
“My kids have suffered through this as well and I’m glad it’s over. It’s been real tough since he hasn’t worked, with me trying to battle three jobs and a family and look after him has been really tough.
“He is on oxygen all the time. He gets very tired and we don’t have a social life because he gets so tired and we don’t go out. But we make the best of it and try to be happy and do it the best way we can.
“I’m happy that we’ve won, not only for our sake, but for thousands of other people around that are probably going to go through the same thing.”
Mr Magazanik said his firm, Slater & Gordon, had already spoken to other mechanics who had asbestos-related diseases.
“This decision will set a precedent because it’s the first time a mechanic has succeeded against a car manufacturer in this country and there are literally thousands of mechanics who have been exposed to asbestos while working with brakes,” he said.
“We have a number of those people on our books. They’ve not only worked for Ford Motor Company, they have worked for a number of garages, mechanics and car companies, but certainly this decision will give hope to thousands of mechanics.
“What the decision underlines is that Ford . . . failed miserably in its duty to warn people like Mr Lo Presti, who were working with asbestos often on a daily basis.”
Mr Magazanik said Mr Lo Presti’s exposure to asbestos while working for Adelaide Terrace dealer Anderson Ford in the 1970s, soon after migrating to Australia, had been horrific. Mr Lo Presti had been required to use compressed air to blow the brakes, most of which were made using asbestos until recently, and brake drums. There had been no ventilation and asbestos had settled on all the surfaces.
“There were thick clouds of dust,” Mr Magazanik said. “Dust so thick that it would settle on the ends of workers’ cigarettes and actually put the cigarettes out. It would collect on the fans and fall off in chunks.
“It was so thick sometimes they would try to brush it away from their face. That was the extent of the dust in that facility and again there was never a single warning that inhaling that dust was dangerous.”
In his judgment, Justice Beech said Ford had breached its duty of care to Mr Lo Presti by not reducing his risk of asbestos inhalation. Ford had submitted that Mr Lo Presti may have suffered from a non-asbestos health problem. Its expert witness said Mr Lo Presti would survive for about five years.
The parties agreed before trial that the payout, should Mr Lo Presti win, would be $840,000, but he now faces a battle over legal costs, with Mr Magazanik asking the court to order Ford to pay most of them.
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