Cape Town - South Africa's leading gold miners are facing a
potential lawsuit on behalf of thousands of workers who claim they contracted
silicosis, a lung disease, through the companies' negligence.
A South African lawyer filed the first papers on Tuesday
against AngloGold Ashanti [JSE:ANG], Gold Fields [JSE:GFI] and Harmony Gold
Mining Company [JSE:HAR], in a preliminary step to determine whether the court
recognises the case as a class action.
“If the certification is granted we anticipate that this may
be the largest damages suit in the history of this country, in the tens of
billions of rand possibly,” lawyer Charles Abrahams, who represents more than 3
000 mostly former miners, said.
The mining companies had declined to comment in detail ahead
of the filing. A spokesperson for Gold Fields said on Tuesday he would not
comment, while officials at the other two firms were not immediately available.
The suit, which has little precedent in South African law,
has its roots in a landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court a year ago that
for the first time allowed lung-diseased miners to sue their employers for
Silicosis is a disease that causes shortness of breath, a
persistent cough and chest pains and makes people highly susceptible to
tuberculosis, which kills. It has no known cure.
Abrahams said the claim was separate, but similar, to that
of fellow lawyer, Richard Spoor, who represents several thousand more
claimants. In March, Spoor said he would soon file his class action papers
against the same mining companies cited by Abrahams.
The two cases could eventually be joined, said Abrahams.
Graham Briggs, the chief executive of Harmony, told Reuters
earlier this year, the issue of silicosis was “a big topic” but he did not
think it “class action material”.
Different conditions prevailed at different times in
different mines, he said, and workers may have had more than one employer.
A successful suit could collectively cost mining companies
billions of dollars, according to legal and industry experts.
The largest settlement to date by the mining industry in
South Africa was $100m in 2003 in a case brought by Spoor against an asbestos
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