Johannesburg - A South African lawyer has signed up more than 6 000 plaintiffs from South Africa and Lesotho in preparation for a class action lawsuit against gold miners, whose negligence allegedly resulted in workers contracting silicosis ‑ a debilitating lung disease.
Attorney Richard Spoor, whose legal battle against a South African asbestos mining company led to a US$100 million settlement in 2003, recently said he would file class action papers at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg “within the next few months”.
Spoor said he had 6 876 plaintiffs from South Africa and the landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho.
Lesotho has provided hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to South Africa’s gold mines over the past century.
The principal targets of the suit will be AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony Gold — the country’s three biggest gold miners — and producer DRDGold.
Frans Barker, chief operating officer of the Chamber of Mines and the main industry spokesperson on silicosis, said:
“We’re continuing with our work on these issues, irrespective of the class action.
“We wouldn’t like to respond to the class action itself because that depends very much on the merit of specific cases.”
The planned 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 ill mine workers to sue employers for damages.
The plaintiff in that case, Thembekile Mankayi, sought R2.6m in damages, loss of earnings, medical bills, and pain and suffering caused by silicosis and tuberculosis allegedly contracted while working for AngloGold from 1979 to 1995.
Mankayi died days before the ruling.
Spoor would not be drawn to comment on the size of any desired settlement, but industry research suggests mining houses could face a bill running into billions of rand should they lose.
Commenting on mine safety in South Africa, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu decried the state of affairs. Ailments reported were mainly noise-induced hearing loss and silicosis. Mine workers, she added, were further predisposed to tuberculosis and HIV and AIDS.
“The total number of noise-induced hearing loss and silicosis cases reported by the mines in the 2010 period was about 1 200 and 1 700, respectively.
“About 4 500 cases of pulmonary tuberculosis were reported in 2010,” she said.
At their height in the 1980s, South Africa’s gold mines employed 500 000 people, and medical research suggests as many as one in two former gold miners has silicosis.
This is a respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust.
A 2009 paper by researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand and University College, London, estimated there were 288 000 cases of compensable silicosis in South Africa.
It also assessed the industry’s unpaid compensation liability at R10b at 1998 values. Today, that is worth R27b.