South Africa’s High Court gave the green light on Friday for class action suits seeking damages from gold firms on behalf of up to half a million miners who contracted the fatal lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis while working underground.
The decision by Judge Phineas Mojapelo sets the stage for protracted proceedings in the largest class action suits in Africa’s most industrialized country which analysts have said could cost the gold industry hundreds of millions of dollars.
Mojapelo also said that workers who had died of the diseases could be included in the suits – with any damages paid to their family members – and that each mining company should be held liable separately for any damages.
“We hold the view that in the context of this case, class action is the only realistic option through which most mine workers can assert their claims effectively against the mining companies,” Mojapelo said in the unanimous ruling by a three-judge bench.
“Mining companies will be held liable or responsible for their own actions of unlawful emissions,” the judge said.
Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks. It causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and chest pains, and makes people highly susceptible to tuberculosis.
The defendants in the case include some of the world’s biggest bullion producers, who have been hit by a slide in commodities prices and widespread labor unrest among miners.
The defendants include global mining firm Anglo American, Africa’s top bullion producer AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Sibanye Gold and African Rainbow Minerals (ARM), all of which have together formed the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) Working Group to deal with such issues.
The OLD said in a statement that the gold firms were studying the judgment and would decide at a later date whether to appeal the verdict.
Shares in the gold companies shares were steady following the ruling, tracking a stronger price for the precious metal.
The class action suits, which have little precedent in South African law, have their roots in a landmark 2011 ruling by the Constitutional Court that for the first time allowed lung-diseased miners to sue employers for damages.
The claims, which stretch back decades, involve not just South Africans but also thousands of former miners from neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland.
That is why Anglo American, which no longer has any interests in gold mining, and ARM, which no longer operates gold mines, have been named in the claims.
Friday’s ruling is separate from a $30 million silicosis settlement with 4,400 miners reached in March by Anglo American and AngloGold.