Lawyer wins prize for asbestos battles

Theodora Ahilas wakes in the night with clues from her clients’ lives rattling around in her head.

She knows that at some point in the past 50 years they have had contact with asbestos. Now they are dying and the race is on to work out when they were exposed so they can see their family compensated within their lifetimes.

Ms Ahilas, an asbestos solicitor at Maurice Blackburn, has handled close to 1000 cases involving mesothelioma victims.

Now, in the same month that seven James Hardie directors have had their penalties slashed, she has won the Law and Justice Foundation’s Justice Medal, which recognises her commitment to their victims.

The courtrooms where she appears are fashioned from bedrooms and hospital wards. Often hers is one of the last faces her clients see.

“I’ve seen people give their last breath getting compensation for their families,” Ms Ahilas said.

“It’s awful but its’s still amazing that the human spirit is still prepared to fight at that point. That’s why I love the work.”

But the business of obtaining compensation for asbestos victims has changed over her 20-year career.

The first wave were the mining and factory workers who had direct exposure with asbestos and often battled its manufacturers, who claimed they were not aware of its affects until 1960. The second wave were the builders and plumbers who worked with fibro products.

Now the third wave is coming through – the women who washed the overalls of those workers, the bystanders and the home renovators.

Invariably they have no idea when they were exposed.

“I say to people when they come to me, ‘Think if it as a big jigsaw puzzle’,” Ms Ahilas said.

She has one client in his 30s, who played among fibro offcuts as a toddler when his parents were renovating their house.

The mountaineer Lincoln Hall was exposed when his father built him a cubby house in 1969.

For another client, the mystery was solved when she found an ancient receipt from a hardware store, which specified a James Hardie product.

“It’s a forensic exercise. You’re looking at something that happened 30 or 40 years ago. You look for records to see what products they might have used. It’s a lot of talking to witnesses and going back and finding people.”

The third wave of victims demonstrates how indiscriminate mesothelioma can be.

“It could happen to anyone. There were several middle management [people] at James Hardie who developed mesothelioma, and that would be from walking through the factory.”

But if they ever sought compensation, they never called Theodora Ahilas.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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