Terminally ill man awarded $3m for asbestos exposure while renovating

James Hardie ordered to compensate Matthew Werfel, 42, who inadvertently sanded asbestos sheets at his home in the mid-2000s

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 Father of three, Matthew Werfel has been awarded $3m after James Hardie, now Amaca, was found to have failed to warn the public about the dangers of asbestos. Photograph: Supplied

A terminally ill South Australian man has been awarded a record $3m payout after he was exposed to asbestos dust, including while renovating his home.

Matthew Werfel, 42, will receive $3,077,187 – the largest amount ever awarded to an asbestos victim in Australia – after the building materials company James Hardie was found to have failed to warn the public about risks posed by their cement products.

Lawyers for Werfel lodged a claim against James Hardie – now known as Amaca – in the South Australian employment tribunal seeking damages after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2017.

Werfel had been exposed to asbestos dust while working for a fencing contractor as a teenager and later in the mid-2000s during renovations on his Pooraka home.

Over three or four weekends, he sanded and painted the home, unaware it was constructed from asbestos cement sheets.

“By the time of Mr Werfel’s exposure there can be no doubt that Amaca knew the risk that was posed to renovators,” Judge Leonie Farrell said in her judgment on Tuesday.

In addition to awarding compensation for pain and suffering, future economic loss, medical expenses and loss of life expectancy, Farrell imposed exemplary damages on the company, as a deterrent to other firms.

“Amaca breached its duty of care to a large class of Australians, of which Mr Werfel was a member,” Farrell said.

“The magnitude of the risk of members of this class contracting mesothelioma was vast. The consequences of the risk were the deaths of many Australians. The probability of the risk occurring was certain.

“It had occurred in the past and the numbers were increased to the knowledge of Amaca. Amaca had the resources with which it could and should have taken steps to minimise or obviate the risk of death in this class.”

Werfel welcomed the payout but feared many home renovators were still exposed to the dangerous fibre.

“On the one hand, this outcome is a great relief, knowing that my family will be taken care of,” he said in a statement.

“But it’s heartbreaking to think how many people continue to be exposed, without their knowledge, to asbestos in their homes and workplaces.”

His lawyer Annie Hoffman said the case had significant implications for people exposed to asbestos in their homes, workplaces and in the community.

She said the case confirmed James Hardie’s duty of care continues even decades later.

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