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Judge Gives Go-Ahead for Class-Action Suits for South African Miners Who Contracted Lung Diseases While Working

Xolisile Butu with his mother, one of thousands of former miners involved in the suit

Xolisile Butu with his mother, one of thousands of former miners involved in the suit

South Africa’s High Court has given the green light for class-action suits seeking damages from gold firms, on behalf of up to half a million miners who contracted fatal lung diseases while working underground.

The decision by Judge Phineas Mojapelo sets the stage for protracted proceedings in South Africa’s largest class-action suit, which analysts have said could cost the gold industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mojapelo also said that workers who had died of diseases including silicosis and tuberculosis 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 for unlawful emissions,” the judge said.

Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks. It causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough, 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, all of which have together formed the Occupational Lung Disease 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.

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