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Industrial deafness can be slow to develop and those affected have a tendency to suffer in silence. However, as a Court of Appeal ruling powerfully underlined, you should seek legal advice immediately if you have the slightest suspicion that your noisy workplace has caused hearing loss.
The case concerned a man in his 60s who had, in the 1970s and early 1980s, worked as a machine operator for a company that manufactured flat-pack furniture. He described a constantly noisy working environment in which employees could only communicate by shouting or using hand signals. He claimed that no hearing protection whatsoever was provided, but his allegations were disputed.
The factory closed in 1981 and the man was made redundant. He claimed that his hearing thereafter steadily deteriorated and that his constant requests for people to repeat themselves led to him acquiring the nickname ‘What’s That’. However, it was not until 2013 – 32 years after his employment at the factory ended – that he contacted solicitors.
In dismissing his claim against his former employer, purely on grounds of the delay in launching proceedings, a judge found that by 2007 or 2008 he had actual knowledge that his significant injury might be attributable to workplace noise. A three-year time limit applies to personal injury cases, and the judge found that proceedings should have been issued by 2010 or 2011 at the latest.
A judge refused to exercise his discretion to waive the time limit on the basis that the machines that were alleged to have caused excessive noise were long gone and many important witnesses were no longer available. In those circumstances, the employer’s defence had been seriously prejudiced by the delay.
In dismissing the man’s appeal against that decision, the Court noted that he had for a long time deliberately refrained from taking medical advice in respect of his hearing loss for no better reason that to avoid having to use hearing aids at a relatively young age. The judge’s findings as to date of knowledge were open to him on the evidence and his exercise of discretion also could not be faulted.