South African gold mines face 500,000-strong suit over diseases

A South African court has allowed thousands of former mineworkers to proceed with a class action seeking damages from mining companies for lung diseases they contracted while working at their operations.

“Class action is the only realistic option through which most mineworkers can assert” their constitutional rights, Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo said at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg Friday. If it hadn’t been authorized, “impoverished, indigent workers won’t be able to access justice,” he said.

Current and former underground mineworkers who contracted silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis constitute the class, as do families of employees who have died from the diseases, Mojapelo said. The judgment allows as many as 500,000 people to join a suit, he said. The action would sue 32 mining companies for damages caused by unsafe working practices, lawyers for the applicants say.

Silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling dust from mines, causes scar tissue in the lungs, increasing vulnerability to tuberculosis that can kill more than half of sufferers if not properly treated.

Studying Judgment

In a separate case, Anglo American Plc’s South African unit and AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. agreed to pay about 500 million rand ($33 million) to settle claims from 4,365 former employees who said they contracted dust-related lung diseases while working for the companies.

The two companies, together with Sibanye Gold Ltd., African Rainbow Minerals Ltd., Gold Fields Ltd. and Harmony Gold Mining Co. are studying the judgment and are pursuing a settlement out of court, said Alan Fine, a spokesman for the producers.

They “will decide individually whether to appeal,” he said.