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UNITED KINGDOM: BRITISH CASES BREAK NOVEL LEGAL GROUND

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A few years ago, when Britons read of unlucky victims pursuing unlikely lawsuits, they would mutter, "Only in America."

But now in the United Kingdom, every week seems to produce another type of lawsuit or an award in an amount that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Among cases that have drawn attention during the past year:

A lawyer trainee is suing her former firm for more than 600,000 pounds ($978,000) after contracting dysentery while on a business trip overseas (BI, Feb. 10).

More than 200 children are suing six pharmaceutical companies, claiming to have suffered fluoride poisoning after using the manufacturers' toothpaste.

E. coli food-poisoning victims have sued the government and McDonald's Restaurants Ltd. (BI, Dec. 16, 1996)

The families of children who died of leukemia that allegedly was caused by electromagnetic fields have sued electric companies (BI, Oct. 21, 1996).

Relatives of dozens of children have proposed litigation against manufacturers of childhood disease vaccines, claiming they were injured by the U.K. government's childhood immunization program, in particular the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (BI, Jan. 8, 1996).

Several dozen lung cancer sufferers are suing Britain's two largest tobacco companies. The case, which is the first such lawsuit to be brought in an English court against a cigarette manufacturer, is expected to be the largest group action under England's contingency fee arrangements.

Former students have sued local education authorities, claiming they were not properly educated.

Bill Sulman, risk and insurance manager for Nottingham County Council, thinks "lack-of-education" claims will increase. Nottingham, an average-size county in the middle of England, has "a couple of dozen claims, and that is jut the tip of the iceberg," said Mr. Sulman, the former chairman of the Assn. of Local Authority Risk Managers. Less than three years ago, the local authority had never had such a claim.

Although not all of these cases may succeed, recent judgments and out-of-court settlements suggest they are worth pursuing (see related story).

Case law and settlements have developed rapidly in the area of stress and post-traumatic stress.

In October 1996, the U.K. Court of Appeal awarded compensation to four police officers

who suffered post-traumatic stress after the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989, where dozens of soccer fans were crushed to death

The four officers, who were at the stadium during the incident, were not among the rescue team of 14 officers the South Yorkshire Police's insurer, Zurich Municipal, compensated earlier that year (BI, June 10, 1996). However, the Appeal Court ruled that employers owe the same duty of care in relation to psychiatric illnesses as they do with physical injuries. South Yorkshire Police are appealing that ruling.

Two months later, a local health authority agreed to pay 500,000 pounds ($820,600) to compensate the parents of 13 children killed or injured in 1993 by a deranged hospital nurse for post-traumatic stress the parents suffered (BI, Dec. 23, 1996). Although not a legal precedent, it was one of the first settlements of its kind in British legal history.

While English law hardly recognized post-traumatic stress until recently, mental-injury claims are attracting large compensation claims.

Last October, a woman was awarded 450,000 pounds ($733,500) for mental injuries sustained from negligent surgery. She was forced to give up a high-paying job in Thailand and suffers exhaustion, depression and some features of PTSD.

Workplace stress also has become a potential area of litigation after a 1994 case in which a social worker was awarded substantial damages after two nervous breakdowns at work (BI, Dec. 5, 1994).

Other areas of employment law also are producing many more claims-in particular, harassment and discrimination.

Earlier this year, a London lawyer was ordered to compensate a former employee who alleged he was bullied at work (BI, Jan. 6). Although the worker was awarded just 30 pounds ($49) in compensation and 785 pounds ($1,288) in legal costs, the suit exposed his former employer to possible disciplinary proceedings by the Law Society.

Bullying at school also has prompted a recent 30,000 pounds ($49,236) settlement between a school and former pupil who claimed his life was ruined because school authorities failed to protect him from bullies (BI, Nov. 25, 1996).

Repetitive strain injury claims also have found favor in the courts in recent years.

A U.K. High Court judge's finding that a mining company can be sued for failing to prevent injuries from vibrating equipment like drills is expected to lead to more injury claims (BI, Jan. 29, 1996).

And, last month, a court awarded a record 186,281 pounds ($303,683) to a machinist who suffered a repetitive strain injury (BI, Jan. 27).

An asbestos ruling last year also is expected to lead to more lawsuits. The Appeal Court upheld a High Court award to victims of mesothelioma, an often-cancerous lung tumor linked to asbestos inhalation, who lived in the vicinity of an asbestos factory (BI, April 22, 1996). The two plaintiffs in two test cases were awarded a total of 115,000 pounds ($188,738).

It was the first time compensation was awarded to claimants who suffered as a result of environmental rather than work-related exposure.

A precedent with alarming consequences for public service providers was set last year when Hampshire County Council was ordered to pay 15.8 million pounds ($25.8 million) after a U.K. High Court found council-employed firefighters liable for damage to a computer company's offices (BI, Sept. 9, 1996).

Litigation also has reared its head on Britain's rugby and soccer fields, after a rugby referee was ordered to pay an estimated 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) in compensation to a player paralyzed during a game, and a professional soccer player successfully sued another for injuries sustained during a tackle.