Over 30 South African gold companies face silicosis class action

Close to 15,000 former miners suffering from lung disease are expected to join South Africa's biggest ever class action lawsuit against some of the world's leading gold producers, said Tuesday Motley Rice human rights attorney, Michael Elsner.

The affidavits, filed in the High Court of South Africa in December, claims the miners contracted severe occupational lung ailments, such as tuberculosis and silicosis, while working in underground mines, and are demanding millions of US dollars in compensation from the mining companies.

The litigation alleges that the 30 named South African gold mining companies, including big names such as AngloGold Ashanti (NYSE:AU), Goldfields (NYSE:GFI) and Harmony Gold (NYSE:HMY), knew of the dangers posed to miners by silica dust for more than a century and alleges 12 specific forms of neglect and endangerment, including wilfully ignoring and/or failing to execute almost all of the recommended steps mandated in regulations and legislation designed to protect the miners from silica dust.

“If approved as a class action, the suit would be an unprecedented means of recovery for the country. Very few class actions have been brought in South Africa, and none have been filed for sick workers. Approval would ensure meaningful access to justice for thousands of indigent and rural workers who are dying from this incurable disease,” said Elsner.

According to the law firm, such type of legal action was —until recently— not possible. The Constitutional Court of South Africa issued a landmark ruling in March 2011 in another of Spoor’s cases, Mankayi v. AngloGold Ashanti Limited, filed by now-deceased gold miner Thebekile Mankayi.

He claimed he contracted silicosis and tuberculosis at Vaal Reefs mine, operated by AngloGold and was given a limited payout for his injuries under the terms of South Africa’s Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODIMWA). However, he had filed the suit under common law for his full loss of wages, damages and medical expenses.

The Constitutional Court’s decision, which overruled the previous decisions of both the High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeals, affirmed injured workers’ rights to sue employers for fair compensation.

This ruling, says the law firm, broke new legal ground not only for workers’ rights but also for the South African legal system and public health.

Little research has been conducted into the incidence of lung disease amongst South African miners, and the few studies undertaken by mining companies so far have focused largely upon white workers.