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10 June 2021 | Comment | Article by Lynda Reynolds

The inquests process: What happens when a death might be linked to asbestos

When a loved one passes away from an asbestos-related disease, it is a very difficult and confusing time for those left behind. If there is a suggestion that the death has been caused by an industrial disease, (such as the asbestos-related disease) the death must be reported to the coroner. The corner will open an investigation and list an inquest into the cause of death. We’ve put together a short blog detailing the inquest process so if it is something you are going through, you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Will my loved one have to have a post-mortem as part of an inquest?

If there is any doubt of the medical cause of death, the coroner will usually order for a post-mortem examination to be carried out. The coroner will consider all relevant factors (including the family’s wishes) as to whether they will order a post-mortem or not. However, the final decision is theirs alone and they must be mindful of their wider legal duties.

The exact purpose of a post-mortem will depend on what asbestos-related disease is suspected. During their illness, it is often not deemed in a patient’s best interest to be put through an invasive biopsy procedure. Therefore, it is common for a formal diagnosis to be postponed until lung tissue samples can be taken at the post-mortem.

Mesothelioma is very difficult to diagnose as its appearances can differ and it may be confused with other similar conditions. For this reason, it is often only by post-mortem, where lung tissue samples are taken for histological testing, that a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma can be made.

For asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer cases, the condition itself is often less equivocal. Therefore, there is more of a particular focus on obtaining an asbestos fibre analysis from retained lung tissue samples.

In addition, the deceased’s GP or treating physician will also provide a short report regarding their health leading up to their passing.

What happens during an inquest investigation?

Coupled with the medical investigations at post-mortem, the coroner will also investigate how and when the deceased may have been exposed to asbestos. A first-hand witness statement taken in life, such as by a solicitor as part of a claim, is often the best form of evidence to show asbestos exposure in detail.

Where it has not been possible to obtain a statement from the deceased, family and friends will often be asked to provide statements about any asbestos exposure they are aware of.

Once the coroner is satisfied that they have all the relevant information, they will formally list a date for the inquest.

How long does an inquest take?

If a post-mortem examination is not required and the coroner has sufficient information concerning the cause of death and diagnosis, the inquest can be conducted within a few weeks.

However, if a post-mortem is required, an inquest can be listed for several months in the future. In cases where specialist equipment is needed to analyse specific asbestos fibres within lung tissue samples, there is a significant delay. These inquests are currently being listed for over 12 months’ time (June 2021).

When, where and how does an inquest take place?

The coroner will provide notice to the deceased’s family and next-of-kin of the time and date of the inquest and ask whether they wish to attend. The inquest procedure was overhauled a few years ago to put the grieving family at the heart of the process. They and any other interested persons will be allowed to raise questions of the evidence and are invited to make any representations to the coroner that they believe are relevant. If the family do not wish to do this themselves they can instruct a specialist solicitor to represent them to make sure that the coroner fully evaluates all of the relevant information before making their determination.

If there are no attendees, the inquest will usually take place on the papers by the coroner alone.

When opening the inquest the Coroner will ask themselves four main questions:

  1. Who was the deceased?
  2. When and where did the deceased pass away?
  3. What was the medical cause of death?
  4. How did they come by their death?

For asbestos-related disease inquests, the main focus will be on questions three and four.

To answer question three, the coroner will review the statement provided by the deceased’s treating physician along with the post-mortem report (if obtained) to determine whether or not a diagnosis of an asbestos-related condition can be supported.

Following on from this, to answer the final question, the coroner will evaluate all of the information provided by witnesses and the legal representatives and ask themselves what role asbestos exposure played in causing the deceased’s diagnosis and subsequent death. If it is deemed that asbestos caused the condition, a finding of death by industrial disease will be made.

What happens after an inquest?

Although the coroner’s role is not to apportion culpability or guilt to any party, a finding of death caused by an industrial disease can provide a family with some level of closure and will be supportive in any legal claim.

Once the cause of death has been finalised the next of kin can obtain final death certificates and formally register the death with the local Register Office.

Contact us

If you or anyone you know is struggling to navigate the inquest procedure, would like legal representation or have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, please contact the specialist Inquest and Asbestos teams at Hugh James.

Author bio

Lynda is a Partner and Head of the Inquest Team that forms part of the Clinical Negligence Department in the London office. She has considerable experience in assisting families with inquests that relate to deaths in hospital or care homes, where medical negligence is suspected.

She has been instructed on Article 2 inquests, inquests with juries and complicated medical inquests where numerous experts have been instructed. Where necessary she will make submissions on the Coroner’s power to issue Prevention of Future Deaths reports. Her inquest role combined with subsequent civil claims ensures that she is a specialist on Fatal Accident Act Claims. She is recognised in both UK Chambers & Partners and Legal 500.

In addition to her role in the Inquest team Lynda has a caseload of complex clinical negligence matters which include cerebral palsy, brain injuries, spinal injuries and cauda equina claims.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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