Marks & Spencer has admitted negligently exposing to asbestos a woman who worked in two of its stores.
Janice Allen, 53, who was a supervisor in the men’s and women’s clothes sections of M&S from 1978-87, first at its main Oxford Street store in London and then in Uxbridge, has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lethal form of lung cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibres.
There is no cure, and she has been given months to live. M&S has agreed in the high court to pay “significant” damages after judgment in her favour in May.
M&S admitted breaching its legal duty of care.
Allen’s lawyer, Harminder Bains, of Leigh Day, said there could be many people suffering asbestos-related diseases caused by owners of premises failing to comply with legal safety procedures.
Mesothelioma, cancer of the lung’s outer lining, can take decades to develop and causes a drawn-out, painful death.
Allen, married with two children in their 20s, said she was “devastated and distraught” that she was dying from a cancer she had never heard of, from inhaling asbestos that she did not know existed in the stores.
“I feel betrayed by Marks Spencer. The company used to portray itself like a family; they engendered loyalty. I worked very hard, I met my husband there. But to think beneath the surface they were exposing people to deadly risks, to asbestos, it’s so cynical. We were looking forward to enjoying life in the coming years; instead I have to face the fact I will not live to see my grandchildren.”
Asbestos was considered a miracle fire-proof building material and widely used in construction after World War II until the 1970s, when it was recognised to be lethal.
Successive legislation has since required the removal of asbestos.
In 2013 Steve Rowe, an M&S executive director, told a BBC documentary: “If you look back into the 60s, 70s and 80s, it is possible that staff were exposed to asbestos in our stores.”
But M&S’s policies relating to asbestos had become “industry leading” since then. In 2011, M&S was fined £1mn, for unsafe handling of asbestos at its Reading store.
The judge, Harvey Clarke QC, said managers had been cavalier in not closing the store while the work was ongoing, “to keep the trading profit as high as reasonably possible”.
Allen worked in the Marble Arch store and then at Uxbridge for a total of nine years after leaving school at 18.
In the summer of 2012, 25 years after leaving Marks and Spencer, she felt agonising pain near her ribs, and in April 2013 she was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Given M&S’s history, her lawyer Bains believed it was likely that Allen had been exposed to asbestos while working there.
William Wallace, a health and safety officer who worked at the Reading store in 2006, informed the HSE of the criminally unsafe work there and became a witness in the Reading prosecution, had worked at the Marble Arch store in 1998 and acted as a witness in Allen’s legal claim.Last updated:
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