More than 30 gold companies in South Africa are facing a class action lawsuit on behalf of 17,000 former miners who say that, as a result of their work, they are sick with silicosis, a debilitating, irreversible lung disease. The mining companies may be liable for as much as US$100 billion, according to Bloomberg News. The lawsuit comes at a difficult time for the mines, which saw massive drops in profit last year due to labour disruptions.
Class action lawsuits are unusual in South Africa, which does not have a long history of this type of litigation. In November 2012, a class action lawsuit was successfully brought against companies found guilty of running a bread cartel—“a seminal judgment,” says Wouter De Vos, professor emeritus of law at the University of Capetown. “The miners’ case will likely be the most important case to follow.”
Lawyer Richard Spoor, who filed the silicosis suit against some of the country’s biggest mining firms—including AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony Gold—says the number of plaintiffs is increasing by 500 people a month. “People in South Africa can’t afford litigation,” says De Vos. “Class action is the only means to give them access to justice.”