Sydney doctor sues over 'tunnel asbestos'

Margaret Scheikowski
·2-min read

A plastic surgeon is suing over his terminal mesothelioma which he says was caused by being exposed to asbestos in tunnels leading from one part of a Sydney hospital to another almost 50 years ago.

Dr Warwick Raymond Harper filed a statement of claim against Sydney Local Health District Health in the NSW Dust Diseases Tribunal in January.

Between 1972 and 1974, he worked as a surgical registrar at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, involving walking through tunnels under Missenden Road when travelling between the western and eastern sides of the complex.

In a preliminary judgment on Thursday, Judge David Russell said Dr Harper suffered from malignant pleural mesothelioma and malignant peritoneal mesothelioma.

He alleges that when walking through the tunnels he was exposed to and inhaled asbestos dust and fibre from lagging that was used as insulation on steam pipe work located within the tunnels.

The judge noted Dr Harper was a specialist plastic surgeon who was still in practice, even though in his mid-70s, when he became ill with his disease.

Mediation was to have taken place between the parties by August 10, but while they could agree on the mediator they did not agree on a date.

Noting the mediation was now more than three months overdue, Judge Russell ruled the complicated case should now be removed from the resolution process and be managed by a judge of the tribunal.

Complications included evidence related to Dr Harper's past and future economic loss, which his forensic accountant says totals more than $2 million.

"The defendant's solicitors have served reports from medical specialists which opine that this is a "low dose" or "de minimis" case, and that even if there was exposure to asbestos in the tunnels under Missenden Road, the level of exposure would not have been sufficient to cause the plaintiff's disease."

The judge said delay in mediation had resulted in "substantial prejudice to the plaintiff and in substantial delay".

"The plaintiff has a terminal illness and every day lost causes prejudice in the completion of his claim," he said.

"It is of course essential that the plaintiff's claim be settled or completed in his lifetime, as he will lose his claim for future loss of earning capacity if he passes away before the proceedings are concluded

"While there might then be a compensation to relatives claim available, that is often an inadequate substitute."

He stressed he wasn't ascribing fault to or being critical of either party.