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13 February 2020
After a two-year dispute, the Turin Court of Appeals has dismissed(1) the appeal filed by the National Insurance Provider (INAIL) and upheld the Court of Ivrea's first-instance decision of 2017,(2) which established causation between extensive work-related use of mobile phones and brain tumours, ordering INAIL to compensate the claimant with a lifelong payment.
A 57-year-old employee of the Italian telecoms company Telecom sued INAIL before the Court of Ivrea alleging that he had developed an acoustic neurinoma(3) as a result of allegedly extensive work-related use of a mobile phone from 1995 to 2010, which was necessary to coordinate other company technicians.
INAIL appeared in the proceedings and objected that no scientific evidence supported the alleged causation between the working activity and the disease suffered by the claimant.
The Court of Ivrea appointed a court-appointed expert to investigate the causation. In 2017, entirely relying on the expert's findings, the court ruled that although there is no scientific certainty about the possible carcinogenic effects of radio frequencies, mobile phones may play a role in causing rare diseases such as the one allegedly suffered by the plaintiff. Therefore, INAIL was ordered to compensate the plaintiff with a lifelong indemnity for the biological damage suffered because of the acoustic neurinoma, which qualifies as an occupational disease.
INAIL challenged the first-instance decision and filed an appeal before the competent Turin Court of Appeals based on:
In the appeal proceedings, the Turin Court of Appeals appointed new experts to reinvestigate causation. Based on their findings, the court fully confirmed the first-instance decision and thus rejected INAIL's appeal.
Among other things, the court-appointed experts:
The Turin Court of Appeals grounded its decision on the above findings and stated, among other things, that the scientific literature mentioned by the court-appointed experts should be considered reliable and independent, as opposed to the scientific literature relating to research funded or managed by entities that have a direct interest in the results of such studies.
The Turin Court of Appeals' decision has revived the debate on suggested links between cancer and intense and extensive use of mobile phones. The decision follows in the footsteps of a Supreme Court decision in a landmark case of October 2012 brought by a worker against INAIL.(4) Here, the court established that a causal link exists between mobile phone use and cancer.
Further, in another case brought by a worker against INAIL,(5) the Court of Florence recently recognised the damage caused by extensive and work-related use of mobile phones. Several similar cases remain pending in Italy.
In this context it is worth mentioning that in a 15 January 2019 decision, the Regional Administrative Court of Lazio ordered the Italian Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research to launch an information campaign aimed at educating the Italian people on "the correct use of mobile phones" and the "health and environmental risks connected to the improper use of such devices". The ministries launched the campaign in July 2019 and is ongoing (for further details please see "Health risks arising from mobile phone misuse: government ordered to launch information campaign").
The abovementioned decisions clearly demonstrate that the debate on the health effects of extensive mobile phone use is far from over. In this respect, the decisions might set a precedent which could gradually allow non-professional users to take legal action against mobile phone manufacturers or sellers. This is especially likely considering the forthcoming entry into force of the Italian law on a new class action regime (October 2020). The reform – which has been introduced with the purpose of expanding and simplifying the recourse to such types of collective lawsuit – might lead users and consumers to target businesses operating in the mobile phone industry by means of class action, claiming rights similar to those recently acknowledged by the Turin Court of Appeals.
Notwithstanding these potential developments, courts will still assess causation on a case-by-case basis and the findings of the experts appointed by the Turin Court of Appeals do not per se ground any mobile phone users' potential claim. For the latter to be upheld, the relevant claimant will need to demonstrate, among other things, the existence of a specific causal link between the use of a device and a relevant disease. Still, mobile phone manufacturers operating in Italy might need to reconsider the warnings included in user instruction manuals, so as to include a specific and more detailed warning on the potential health risks.
For further information on this topic please contact Francesca Rolla, Alessandro Borrello, Vincenzo Donadio or Christian Di Mauro at Hogan Lovells Studio Legale by telephone (+39 02 7202 521) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). The Hogan Lovells Studio Legale website can be accessed at www.hoganlovells.com.
(3) An acoustic neurinoma is a benign tumour that may develop on the hearing and balance nerves near the inner ear. The tumour results from an overproduction of Schwann cells (ie, small sheet-like cells that normally wrap around nerve fibres and help support the nerves). When growth is abnormally excessive, Schwann cells bunch together, pressing against the hearing and balance nerves, often causing gradual hearing loss, tinnitus (ie, ringing in the ears) and dizziness. If the tumour enlarges, it can interfere with the facial nerve, causing partial paralysis, and eventually press against nearby brain structures, thereby becoming life threatening.
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