Out of breath
According to the lawyers who represent the cases, the noose is slowly tightening around the proverbial necks of mining companies for allegedly exposing their employees, mostly underground miners, to the risks of various lung diseases.
“The game is up for the gold mining industry,” says Richard Meeran, an attorney for UK firm, Leigh Day, which recently appeared the victor after Anglo American agreed to an outof-court settlement paying the law firm’s cli- ents, some 23 miners suffering silicosis, an undisclosed fee in compensation.
According to another lawyer, the independent Richard Spoor, it suited Anglo to settle; it didn’t want its defence exposed while larger suits loom – and there are a number.
A class action consisting of 3 500 former miners claiming compensation after contracting silicosis – a lung disease akin to tuberculosis and often fatal – was lodged in the UK courts in September 2011. (The matter is now under appeal after the authority of UK jurisdiction was successfully challenged.)
Spoor, meanwhile, has 22 000 applications from silicosis sufferers in his class action. There’s also a filing in the Pretoria High Court for 60 individual cases underway, while in the Johannesburg High Court another class action representing 31 cases of silicosis sufferers, allegedly contracted while working at Anglo American’s Vaal Reefs (while Anglo had a gold and uranium division which subsequently became AngloGold), is being filed.
According to the Legal Resources Centre, which has also helped pioneer redress against the health risks to which mining companies exposed their workers, there’s a pool of some 280 000 people who worked on gold mines for longer than 10 years – the time allowed to contract silicosis – in potential suits. According to some studies, statistics show that 20% to 30% of all gold mine workers contract silicosis.
Nailing mining companies in this way is a budding industry. A corporate source says: “The lawyers do pretty well out of this. These are not pro bono cases; the f irms dedicate the lawyers full-time to chasing down these cases over long periods of time [10 years, in the case of Anglo’s recent settlement].”
Spoor responds that Anglo, and the corporate world in general, is more cynical. “It suits Anglo to drag out these cases,” he says. About a third of the 23
Miners are vulnerable to a number of respiratory diseases