South African gold miners’ silicosis lawsuit nearing settlement

Photo shows High Court building trial chamber on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Shutterstock Image)

CAPE TOWN, Nov 22 (Reuters) – Lawyers acting for thousands of gold miners who contracted lung diseases at work in South African mines said on Wednesday an out-of-court settlement with their employers could be reached by December.

A High Court ruling last year set the stage for protracted proceedings on cases dating back decades in the largest class action suit yet in Africa’s most industrialised country.

Many of the nearly half a million miners who contracted silicosis and tuberculosis, are from nearby countries who supplied labour to South African mines.

Gold miners are appealing against that ruling while at the same time six of the firms, including Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Sibanye and Harmony, are holding settlement talks with the workers.

Richard Spoor and Charles Abrahams, lawyers for the workers, told parliament’s mineral resources committee that significant progress had been made in those discussions.

“The parties are reasonably confident that a settlement will be achieved in the course of this year,” they said.

In a separate presentation made later to the committee, the Working Group on Occupational Lung Disease which represents the six gold mining firms, said provision for a pre-tax nominal total of around 5 billion rand ($361 million) has been made.

“Settlement will include not only amounts to be paid to claimants, but also ensuring as many as possible eligible claimants are located and adequate financial provision for administration of a trust,” the mining firms said.

Spoor said about half the number of afflicted miners had died since the legal process began a decade ago and that the longer the remainder wait for a settlement, the more would die.

The suit, which has little precedent in South African law, has its roots in a landmark ruling given by the Constitutional Court in 2011 that for the first time allowed miners suffering from lung diseases to sue their employers for damages.

Any settlement that is reached will have to be confirmed by the High Court, lawyers said.

If allowed, it could cost gold firms billions of rand as the industry struggles with lower commodity prices, deeper ore bodies and labour strife curbing output.

“We really do feel that in many ways we have a meeting of minds,” said Charmane Russell, spokeswoman for the mines working group dealing with silicosis.

Silicosis is a disease that causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and chest pains and makes people highly susceptible to tuberculosis. It has no known cure. ($1 = 13.8501 rand)

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by James Macharia and Greg Mahlich)