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Former RMJM bosses absolved in asbestos compensation claim

Claim dropped against two elderly former RMJM partners who faced a £1 million ‘legal nightmare’ over alleged asbestos poisoning

The two former partners of RMJM Partnership, Andrew Derbyshire and Vernon Lee, both now 90, were served with a court claim early last year by the family of the late John Miller, who died of mesothelioma at the age of 70 in 2009, alleging ‘negligent exposure’ of him by his former employers to asbestos dust.

The claim, filed in the Edinburgh Court of Session, was originally against housebuilder Bett Homes – which employed Miller as a carpenter and joiner between 1962 and 1967.

Bett Homes then brought in the two former RMJM partners as a second defendant, based on the employment of Miller as a clerk of works by the then RMJM Partnership on the construction of Ninewells Hospital in Dundee from 1967 to 1973.

The AJ understands that Bett has now reached a settlement with the Miller family worth more than £360,000, while Derbyshire and Lee have been ‘released from the action with no liability for damages’.

The settlement followed an expert report commissioned by the current RMJM business, which found that Miller’s asbestos exposure at Ninewells was ‘insignificant’ in comparison with his other periods of employment elsewhere.

In a statement, the sons of the two former RMJM partners – HTA Design managing partner Ben Derbyshire and former Glenn Howells director Marcus Lee – expressed sympathy for the Miller family but said the process had been ‘long, tortuous, expensive, time-consuming, worrying, saddening and often very stressful’ for their fathers and their families. The statement added: ‘The striking thing … is the extraordinary lack of factual information and practical support available to people like Andrew and Vernon, or their families.

‘Together with Ian Leach of BLM, the law firm that ultimately guided us to the eventual release from this nightmare, we will be proposing to RIBA, RIAS and the Architects Benevolent Society that they strengthen their ability to respond helpfully by establishing a network of individuals such as ourselves who can assist with information.’

Andrew Derbyshire added: ‘It was very unpleasant to be confronted with this at this stage of my life.

‘RMJM was very helpful and I’m planning to write to [owner and chairman] Fraser Morrison to thank him for his help.’

Bett Homes was unavailable for comment.

Full statement from Ben Derbyshire and Marcus Lee

In February 2013, three surviving partners of Robert Matthew Johnson Marshall & Partners, all in their nineties, received writs, quite out of the blue, served from the Edinburgh Court of Sessions. The writs came with no explanation and were largely incomprehensible, being riddled with legal jargon. The suit originated from the sad death from Mesothelioma of one Mr Miller, whose family were seeking compensation from all his previous employers who may have brought him into contact with asbestos.

It’s in the nature of this terrible disease that its incubation can take decades and the source of infection is impossible to identify. So society compensates victims with a law based on the least worst principle that responsibility for damages is shared amongst all those whose employment of affected individuals may have caused infection, in proportion to the relative possibility of exposure. Whilst this is intended to share the burden of damages, an inevitable consequence is that everyone named in such suits tries to shift the burden onto each other - and is at liberty to seek out further parties to burden if they possibly can.

Thus we found ourselves hastily arranging power of attorney on behalf of two men, Andrew Derbyshire and Vernon Lee, both suffering (as Andrew put it) the slings and arrows of old age and at the tail end of a long string of potential liability in which other possible protagonists either could not be found, or had gone into liquidation. Because the alleged injury was inflicted in the late 1960’s, Employers’ Liability Insurance, which would have protected the ex-partners, may never have been taken out (it became compulsory in the early 70s), or at any rate could not be traced.

After a long, tortuous, expensive, time-consuming, worrying, saddening and often very stressful process, we reached a point some months ago when we were able to demonstrate that the unfortunate Mr Miller’s exposure to asbestos while working for RMJM as a clerk of works at Ninewells hospital, Dundee, was negligible, and in any event not negligent on the part of RMJM, his then employers. We have been dismayed it has taken so long since we disclosed this proof, and distressed by the impact on Andrew and Vernon, but at long last, the previous partners have been released from the action with no liability for damages.  Meanwhile the bereaved family have been awarded substantial damages in excess of £360,000.

We received lots of well-meaning support from sympathetic friends and colleagues, for which we were and remain extremely grateful. But the striking thing about this experience is the extraordinary lack of factual information and practical support available to people like Andrew and Vernon, or their families. Nowhere were we able to obtain readily available advice on how the law works, where to go to find insurance, what sort of legal advice to get (you need specialists) or who the specialists in the field are. We had to find all of that out for ourselves, from friends, neighbours and by trial and error.

So, together with Ian Leach of BLM, the law firm that ultimately guided us to the eventual release of the three former partners from this nightmare, we will be proposing to RIBA, RIAS and the ABS that they strengthen their ability to respond helpfully by establishing a network of individuals such as ourselves who can assist with information, and take steps to compile an on-line resource with lists of specialist solicitors, counsel, insurance archaeologists and so on who act in cases such as this. We feel our professional Institutes ought to be able to do more to help vulnerable ex-members such as Andrew and Vernon, and we do not feel it would take too much effort to hugely improve the support available.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I am shocked to find out about the stress that this case has placed upon these elderly architects and their families. Ben and Marcus have highlighted an extremely important point, as it is going to become sadly more likely that other such claims may occur in the future to be faced by other architects who were practising in the 1960's. I will extort the RIBA to pick up the reins to protect their members from such an unfortunate experience in the future. The concept of a network of advisers, ready for this onslaught, is an excellent one which wll have my full support.

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