South Africa: Crippled Gold Miners Seek Payout
UK mining giant Anglo American is among the companies facing a multi-million pound legal battle with former gold miners in South Africa.
The ex-workers claim to have contracted crippling lung disease silicosis as a result of bad ventilation in the country's mines.
The disease, which causes cancer, is widespread among South African miners.
But although those affected are entitled to small amounts of compensation from the government, no South African gold miner has ever successfully sued their employer.
Now UK law firm Leigh, Day and Co has said it plans to launch a landmark "class action" style lawsuit, similar to that used by sick smokers in the United States, on behalf of several hundred former miners.
The allegations made by Leigh, Day and Co are misleading and unsubstantiated Anglo American
Earlier this year, the firm helped to secure a 7.5m pay-out for victims of South African asbestos mining, following a protracted legal battle.
It plans to use that ruling as the basis for its latest legal challenge. It claims the potential liabilities for the gold mining industry could run into billions of rand.
Richard Meeran, a partner in Leigh, Day and Co, said the firm would begin legal proceedings "within weeks", in a UK or South African court, if Anglo American and the other gold mining companies did not agree to an out-of-court settlement.
"We feel we have a good case and it will be a fairly straightforward process of demonstrating negligence against them," Mr Meeran told BBC News Online.
In a statement, the law firm said the risks of mining to health were known more than 100 years ago, but firms had done little to improve ventilation or taken other steps that would have mitigated the problem.
"Both the gold and asbestos mining industries appeared to have displayed a flagrant disregard and cavalier attitude to the health of their workers, placing profit as a clear priority.
"Both industries accumulated massive wealth at the expense of workers' health, taking full advantage of the apartheid system.
"The evidence of negligence on the part of both industries is overwhelming and shocking."
Anglo American vowed to fight Leigh, Day and Co's allegations in court, branding them "misleading and unsubstantiated".
"Anglo American of South Africa Ltd has reviewed the legal issues regarding potential liabilities and, after careful consideration, does not believe it is in any way liable and will defend any legal proceedings which are instituted against it," the company said in a statement.
Other companies to mine gold in the area include Gold Fields and Harmony.
I think the restructuring of South Africa's gold mining industry has been informed by a desire to get these liabilities off the books
Richard Spoor, miners' lawyer
South African lawyer Richard Spoor, who has been pursuing a separate case against South Africa's gold mining industry for the past five years, says the scale of the damage done by silicosis has been underestimated.
"The asbestos problem is dwarfed by the impact of gold mining on people and community health," he told BBC News Online.
He said there could be as many as 500,000 former gold miners crippled by silicosis.
The problem has "been the cause of massive underdevelopment and poverty" in the region, he claimed, as those affected were unable to work the land.
But he sounded a note of caution over pursuing damages claims on behalf of individual miners.
He said it would "break up the problem into little bits and pieces", potentially making a wider solution, involving some form of reparation, more difficult to achieve.
He stressed the importance of working with the mining industry and lawmakers on a lasting settlement.
He said the gold mining industry - which had been anxious to avoid any discussion of the subject during the apartheid era - was in the mood to talk.
"I think the restructuring of South Africa's gold mining industry has been informed by a desire to get these liabilities off the books.
"It has been hanging like an albatross round the industry's neck.
"During the apartheid era, no one cared. It wasn't an issue. But now, foreign investors have no interest in investing in an industry that kills and maims on the scale of South African mining.
"It has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths."