South African gold miners allowed to sue mining companies
Up to 500,000 former and current miners contracted lung disease from the 1960s on
Miners Matela Hlabathe and Vuyani Elliot Dwadube listening to the judgment in the silicosis court case at the Johannesburg High Court, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday. Photograph: EPA/Shayne Robinson/Mutiny Media
A South African court has issued a ruling that allows gold miners who contracted the lung disease silicosis while underground to benefit from a class action lawsuit against 32 mining companies operating in the country.
The Johannesburg high court gave the case’s 69 class representatives the go-ahead to collectively sue former and current gold-mining companies for the fatal ailment they contracted while working for them.
The case’s respondents include African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony and Sibanye Gold.
The applicants were former miners or family members of deceased miners who, allegedly because of unsafe work practices, contracted silicosis by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks.
The disease, which has no known cure, leaves its victims short of breath, leads to scar tissue on the lungs and in many cases also causes pulmonary tuberculosis (TB).
Realistic optionThe applicants were also acting on behalf of tens of thousands of other former and current mine workers who contracted the disease, but cannot afford to access the courts via the normal legal route.
While reading the judgment, deputy judge president Phineas Mojapelo said the class action – which allows individuals to take a case on behalf of a group – was the only realistic option through which most mine workers can assert their constitutional rights.
“We have reached the consensus that there are sufficient common issues to justify the class action. There will be two classes [for silicosis and for TB],” Mr Mojapelo said.
“All the mining companies are accused of failing to protect the health of the employees when they were legally bound to do so and as a result causing [the mine workers] to contract TB and silicosis.”
The judge also said a class action would save all parties involved time and money, as to listen to each individual application was not feasible.
Up to 500,000 former and current miners from South Africa and surrounding countries who contracted the disease from the 1960s onwards can benefit if the class action is successful.
In addition, any out-of-court agreement that is reached between the miners and the mining companies must be approved by the high court. A settlement is a distinct possibility as it would ensure a resolution for each party is reached much more quickly than if the class action has to go ahead.
Charles Abrahams, a lawyer for some of the mine workers involved in the case, told reporters after the ruling that “today is a historic day for the gold mine workers. For generations gold mine workers have languished in mines and their plight has never been appreciated until now.”
The mining companies involved have yet to say whether they will appeal the court’s decision, but a group of six companies said it was important to note the ruling did not represent a view on the merits of the miners’ case.