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South African court allows silicosis class action suit against gold firms

Former gold miners listen to speakers at a registration meeting for miners with silicosis in Bizana in South Africa's impoverished Eastern Cape province

South Africa’s High Court on Friday gave the green light for a class action suit seeking damages from the gold mining sector on behalf of thousands of miners who contracted the fatal lung disease silicosis while working underground.

The court also allowed a class action to go ahead on behalf of miners who contracted tuberculosis in the mines.

The decision by Judge Phineas Mojapelo sets the stage for protracted proceedings which analysts have said could cost the gold industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

The defendants in the case include Harmony Gold, Gold Fields, AngloGold Ashanti, Sibanye Gold , African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) and Anglo American, which have formed the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) Working Group to deal with such issues.

The 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 their employers for damages.

“We hold 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 his ruling.

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.

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