South Africa court allows major class action over miners' silicosis

Johannesburg, May 13

Thousands of South African gold miners and their families can pursue a multi-million-dollar class action against mining companies over an often fatal respiratory disease contracted at work, a judge ruled today.

The decision opens the way for the current and former miners to sue about 30 companies for damages after suffering silicosis from dangerous underground working conditions dating back decades.

Many miners caught silicosis, which has no known cure, from inhaling silica dust while drilling rock. The dust lodges in the lungs and causes permanent scars.

Symptoms include persistent coughing and shortness of breath, and the disease regularly leads to tuberculosis and death.

“We hold the view that in the context of this case, class action is the only realistic option,” Judge Phineas Mojapelo told the High Court in Johannesburg.

“It is the only avenue to realise the right of access to the courts provided by the constitution.”

A group of 56 former miners brought the case, which could expand to involve tens of thousands of elderly men from the poorest rural areas of South Africa as well as neighbouring Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.

They accuse 32 mining companies — including Harmony Gold, Anglo American, Anglogold Ashanti and Gold Fields — of knowingly and systematically failing to protect workers against silicosis.

The companies issued a statement saying they were studying the court’s decision.

“It should be noted that the finding does not represent a view on the merits of the cases brought by claimants,” it said.

“There are issues related to compensation and medical care for occupational lung disease that need to be addressed through engagement between stakeholders.”

Gold Fields earlier called it a ‘generic attack’ against the mining industry and Harmony Gold said a class action would be ‘unimaginably cumbersome, costly, time-consuming and thus inconvenient’.

The class action will be the biggest ever to proceed in South Africa, though many miners have already died from respiratory diseases allegedly caused by their jobs.

The judge today said mining work dating back to 1965 was covered by his ruling.

Some studies have found silicosis prevalence in South African gold mines at between 22 and 36 per cent of all workers — among the highest rates in the world.

In 2011, the Constitutional Court paved the way for the class action by ruling that mineworkers who had often accepted paltry compensation for their injuries could still sue.

The mining companies may seek an out-of-court settlement to avoid protracted litigation and have said they are interested in setting up a ‘legacy fund’ to distribute money.

In a separate case in South Africa earlier this year, about 4,400 silicosis victims and their families won a $32 million settlement from Anglo American and AngloGold Ashanti.