Thousands of mine workers have now been certified by the high Court in Johannesburg to carry on with a class action seeking damages from SA mining firms for lung diseases they contracted while working at their operations.
Ruling the case in favour of the miners, Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo said mining firms violated their constitutional obligation to protect their employees and the miners presented a prima facie case.
Through this ruling by the court today, the stage has been set for tens of thousands of mine workers and former mineworkers suffering from silicosis and tuberculosis (TB) to sue the SA mining firms for damages which might cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“After examining legal prescripts‚ we reached a conclusion that there are sufficient issues to certify a class action where there would be two classes: the silicosis class; and the TB class‚” the deputy judge Mojapelo‚ said in court on Friday morning.
The classes comprise current and former underground workers who had worked for two years in one of the mines from 1965 and contracted TB‚ and the workers who contracted silicosis.
Mojapelo also said workers who had died of the diseases could be included in the suits, with any damages paid to family members, and that each mining company should be held liable separately for any damages.
“All the mining companies are accused of failing to protect the health of the employees when they were legally bound to do so and as a result causing (the mine workers) to contract TB and silicosis,”
“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 a unanimous ruling by three judges.
“Mining companies will be held liable or responsible for their own actions for unlawful emissions,” he said.
While the 69 class representatives in the case who were acting on behalf of thousands of former mine workers went out rejoicing for their victory, some SA mining firms, apart from Randgold and Exploration, were not happy with the court ruling. They therefore strenuously opposed the application for the certification of a class action.
“This will make a difference in our lives, because we have been struggling for so long,” said Vuyani Dwadube, 74, a former rock driller who worked at Harmony Gold and suffers from tuberculosis.
Silicosis is contracted through inhaling tiny particles of silica dust from gold-bearing rocks underground over a prolonged period. The disease causes shortness of breath‚ a persistent cough and chest pains‚ and makes sufferers susceptible to TB. There is currently no cure for the disease.