JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, June 3 – South African mining companies said Friday they had appealed against a court ruling allowing hundreds of thousands of miners to sue for damages over lung disease contracted at work.
A High Court last month allowed former and current mine workers employed by the country’s main gold mining firms since 1965 to proceed with a class action against the companies.
The court decision cleared the way for up to half-a-million miners to sue for damages resulting from silicosis — a deadly respiratory condition developed from breathing in fine silica dust that can be found in places such as mines.
The miners accuse 30 subsidiaries of seven companies including African Rainbow Minerals, AngloAmerican, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony Gold, Gold Fields and Sibanye Gold of knowingly and systematically failing to protect workers against the disease that inflames and scars the lungs.
In a joint statement, those six companies said they have filed individual applications to appeal against the “class certification judgement handed down by the South Gauteng High Court on 13 May 2016”.
They are appealing because they believe that the court’s ruling on some “highly complex and important” issues of fact and law was “incorrect and that another court may come to a different decision”.
It could not be immediately established if the seventh firm, DRDGold had also lodged an application to appeal.
A group of about 60 former miners brought the case, which is set to expand to involve thousands of elderly men from the poorest rural areas of South Africa as well as Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique.
If the companies fail in their appeal, the class action will be the biggest ever in South Africa, although many miners have already died from respiratory diseases allegedly caused by their jobs.
Some studies have found silicosis prevalence in South African gold mines at between 22 and 36 percent of all workers among the highest rates in the world.
The mining companies hinted in their statement that they may seek an out-of-court settlement.
While denying liability for the claims, the companies said they are of the “view that a fair and sustainable settlement is preferable to long and protracted litigation”.