If judges’ decisions were treated as anything other than final, there would be no end to litigation. However, as a Court of Appeal ruling in an asbestos case showed, there are rare occasions when a fundamental change in circumstances demands that a case be reopened.
The case concerned a happily married couple who acted on a permanent basis as foster carers for two troubled children. It was agreed between them that the wife, a specialist nurse, would continue to work as the family’s main breadwinner whilst the husband would remain at home as the children’s primary carer. The couple’s long-term aim was to adopt the children and bring them up to adulthood.
Their plans were derailed, however, when the husband, who had been exposed to asbestos whilst working as a general labourer in the 1990s, died from asbestos-related lung cancer at the age of 55. Following a trial, his employer at the time was ordered to pay his widow £928,827 in damages. Of that total, £666,781 was to compensate for the loss to the family of his domestic, household and childcare services.
In challenging that outcome, the employer presented fresh evidence that the children were no longer in the widow’s care. Although she hoped that they would be returned to her, with additional support from a local authority, she had not seen them for more than a year and had no knowledge of their whereabouts.
Ruling on the matter, the Court acknowledged the general principle that there must be finality in litigation, save in very exceptional cases. However, the fresh evidence was directly relevant to the widow’s loss of dependency claim and to ignore it would be an affront to common sense or a sense of justice. The case was remitted to the trial judge for the value of the widow’s claim to be reassessed.