Exclusive: South Africa gold firms to face silicosis class action

Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:50am EDT
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By Ed Cropley

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African lawyer said on Tuesday he was preparing a class action lawsuit against leading gold mining firms on behalf of thousands of former miners who say they contracted silicosis, a debilitating lung disease, through negligent health and safety.

Attorney Richard Spoor, whose legal battle against a South African asbestos-mining company led to a $100 million settlement in 2003, said he would file class action papers with the High Court in Johannesburg "within the next few months".

"We have a very important meeting with our advocates on Monday to thrash out the final form of the application," Spoor told Reuters.

He said he had so far signed up 6,876 plaintiffs from South Africa and Lesotho, the landlocked kingdom that has provided hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to South Africa's gold mines over the last century.

The principal targets of the suit would be AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony Gold - South Africa's three biggest gold miners - and minor producer DRD Gold, Spoor said.

Frans Barker, chief operating officer of the Chamber of Mines and the main industry spokesman on silicosis, declined specific comment.

"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," he said.

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 lung-diseased miners to sue their employers for damages.   Continued...

A gold miner works deep underground at Cooke Shaft near Johannesburg in this September 22, 2005 file photo. In 2011, South Africa said gold miners with silicosis could sue for compensation. Now, thousands plan to do just that. Picture taken September 22, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/Files