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July 11, 2011

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Judgement links heavy solvent exposure to neurological condition

In what is being hailed as a “landmark decision”, the Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of a former RAF corporal who was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition following exposure to harmful toxins while working for the Ministry of Defence.

The Court, which concluded the existence of a “probable connection” between heavy solvent exposure and neurological damage, paves the way for 52-year-old Shaun Wood to receive substantial damages.

Mr Wood was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy-P (MSAP), an incurable condition associated with Parkinson’s Disease that affects the nervous system, after he was exposed to toxic solvents while working as a painter and finisher at various RAF sites in the UK and abroad. He was medically discharged in 1995, two years after his initial Parkinson’s was diagnosed, and now requires a wheelchair.

Joining the military in 1975, Mr Wood’s job involved painting aircraft and motor vehicles. On occasions, his work exposed him to solvents, including trichloroethylene and dichloromethane, for periods of more than 12 hours a day. At a five-day hearing in Middlesbrough in April 2010, the level of his exposure to toxins during the first Gulf War was shown to have been between ten and 20 times the recommended maximum exposure levels.

The Ministry of Defence accepted it had breached its duty of care in exposing Shaun to the toxins and by failing to provide him with adequate protective equipment, or ventilation. But it also argued that Mr Wood’s condition had not been caused by this exposure.

On 5 May last year, the trial judge found that Mr Wood’s exposure to the chemicals, particularly at dangerously high levels, had caused the majority of the symptoms from which he now suffers. The MoD appealed, but last week (7 July) the Court of Appeal dismissed its case and reaffirmed the link between the exposure and the injury.

Commenting on the wider importance of the case, Mr Wood’s representative from Thompsons Solicitors, Andrew McDonald, said: “This is the first time there has been any adjudication of the link between organic solvents and this kind of neurological damage. We expect that this decision could be used favourably for other claimants who have developed neurological conditions in similar circumstances.

“The High Court found the protection provided by the MoD was completely inadequate and the exposure levels were massive, especially in the intensive work leading to the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. Now the Court of Appeal has unanimously dismissed the MoD’s case for appeal.”

The case will now be transferred to Middlesbrough High Court where compensation will be awarded.

Following the Court of Appeal’s ruling, Mr Wood said: “I was once an extremely fit and active person and there are times when I get frustrated at the amount of time I waste housebound during the colder months.

“In particular, these last two years have been difficult, as my walking has become more difficult and my wife Jan has been recovering from breast cancer. We also had the added strain of this appeal on our shoulders.

“We have no idea what the compensation will mean when we finally receive it but I have no doubt it will help to make our everyday decisions easier for the entire family.”

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