September 17, 2020

Why do asbestos solicitors appeal for witnesses on social media?

As a result of the passage of time, there is often little, if any, documentary evidence available regarding a person’s employment or job role many years previously. We need to know how a person was exposed to asbestos to prove legal liability. It is therefore crucially important to try and obtain strong witness evidence in support of a case.  The evidence we need is different in each case. In mesothelioma, we know that even low levels of asbestos can cause the disease so much of the time we don’t need that much detail about a person’s exposure to establish to prove the claim. However, with lung cancer and fibrosis in the lungs, we have to show a high level of exposure to prove asbestos caused or contributed to the development of the disease so we need detailed evidence about the frequency and duration of a person’s exposure to asbestos.

In most cases our clients are usually able to provide a detailed account of their working life or other circumstances in which they had exposure to asbestos and additional evidence is not needed. However some people have no idea how they came in to contact with asbestos. Further, everyone’s memory is different. Some people can’t remember much about a particular incident or time in their lives where as others can give a very clear account. Sometimes, our clients are also able to remember the names of colleagues, or are still in touch with people they worked with at the time who can be contacted to assist with the claim. However this is not always the case, as naturally over time people lose touch or their colleagues may indeed have already died.

In many fatal cases or in cases where further witness evidence is needed, we often know how a person was exposed, or was likely exposed, to asbestos but that’s not enough. Sometimes we have brought claims against the same companies but we still have to show how each person was specifically exposed to prove each case. It therefore falls to witness appeals to try and trace other people who may have worked at the same company or with the client diagnosed with the asbestos-related disease or that can tell us more about the circumstances of the situation we believe exposure may have occurred in. Appeals are often made requesting those who recognise a person, their name or the company at which they worked at to get in touch and tell us what they can remember.  We always try to include a photograph of the client where possible as memories are often jogged by faces rather than names.

Traditionally, witness appeals were placed in local newspapers in the area where the employment and asbestos exposure took place. The appeal would be placed as a ¼ page or ½ page advert in a daily or weekly newspaper, which would be circulated to those in the area. If we were lucky, people who worked with the person we are representing or at the same company may see the piece and get in touch. However, the pool of people such appeals reached varied. Further, if we are acting in a case where a person wasn’t necessarily exposed at work, it can be even more difficult to trace relevant witnesses.

However, in the last couple of years we have started using social media for witness appeals. We create targeted adverts on Facebook, which link to a post on our website.  The content of the appeal is very much the same as in newspapers, but has just moved online.  The adverts can made bespoke and aimed at specific locations and age groups in order to reach a specific audience.

We have found that social media appeals can be very successful. More and more people have social media accounts today, many checking their news feeds on a regular basis (much more frequently than they would read a newspaper!).  Social media also allows adverts and appeals to be ‘shared’ by individuals to their friends and followers, allowing the appeals to circulate further, increasing the chances of reaching someone who is able to help.  We have found that even those who aren’t on social media are often informed about appeals by their family members or friends who are, circulating appeals even further!

The use of social media has proved particularly invaluable during the COVID-19 lockdown. During a time when many people were not, or could not, leave the house to buy a newspaper they could still be reached online and via social media.  Many people who were not previously on social media now are as they have had the time to learn how (or been forced!) to use social media platforms in order to stay in touch with friends and family.

We very much rely on people responding to our appeals to tell us what they remember and to give a witness statement. Independent witness evidence is often crucial to the success of the cases we are pursuing for our clients who are very ill or whose family member has died. If a statement is given it is very rare for cases to go to trial so usually the witness will not need to give the evidence in court.

Whilst there will still be times when the traditional newspaper appeal may be needed, it seems social media will largely be the way forward in the future, even more so as we all get to grips with our ‘new normal’.

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