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By Moneyweb

Moneyweb: Journalists

Coal companies face class action over health damage to workers

Class action specialist Richard Spoor filed the case on Tuesday.

Class action pioneer Richard Spoor has filed a class action suit against coal companies South32, BHP Billiton and Seriti Power, seeking legal remedies for thousands of coal miners afflicted by coal mine dust lung disease (CMDLD).

Only three coal mining companies have been cited in the class action suit, though a separate class action suit will be launched against other coal miners, notably Anglo Coal (now Thungela Resources), Sasol, Exxaro and Glencore, says Dasantha Pillay, the instructing attorney for Richard Spoor Inc.

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Pillay says thousands of coal miners, many of them now deceased, have been left with incurable lung diseases requiring life-long treatment while the coal mining companies generated enormous profits. 

The court filings outline three classes of applicants: 

  • Current and former coal miners who contracted CMDLD in the form of pneumoconiosis – with or without chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • Current and former coal miners who contracted COPD after working in a South32, BHP Billiton Plc and Seriti Power mine; and
  • Dependents of coal miners who have died due to the illness.

The applicants argue that South32, BHP Billiton Plc and Seriti Power breached the legal duties owed to the miners by failing to implement statutorily mandated procedures and protections. As a result, the miners developed incurable lung diseases.

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There has been a considerable reshuffling of coal assets during the intervening decades.

The class action will be pursued on an opt-out basis, meaning any coal mining workers falling within the proposed classes will be deemed part of the action unless specifically opting out. Attorneys for the claimants are also asking the court to appoint a special master to oversee and administer the determination and distribution of damages to the members of the class.

In preparation for the case, medical experts assessed the health of more than 100 coal mineworkers and found a high incidence of lung disease.

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Justice for miners

The case was initiated by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference and is described in statement from Richard Spoor Inc as “a first step toward obtaining justice for all coal miners who have suffered, often without any form of compensation”.

“Very often, workers do not have the means to seek legal recourse from large companies which have huge resources at their disposal,” said Cardinal-elect Stephen Brislin, the Archbishop of Cape Town.

“The Church is always concerned about the well-being of [the] people with whom we work and live. It is thus incumbent on the Church to give assistance where it can so that the rights of the vulnerable are respected and so that they can access compensation that is legally due to them. Many companies are amenable to settling such cases, but in some instances court action is necessary.”

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Should the court recognise the miners as a class, it will give thousands of workers and their families from around southern Africa an opportunity to obtain justice and financial compensation.

Says Spoor: “We know that there is a long and difficult road ahead for miners who are already paying a heavy price for their labour. While compensation will not restore their health, we seek justice for those whose work has sent them home bearing the high cost of coal on their bodies.”

Motley Rice LLC, one of the largest plaintiffs’ litigation firms in the US, is supporting the workers’ legal team as consultants.

Speedier legal process

Spoor previously won a multibillion-rand settlement for thousands of surviving or deceased gold miners and their dependants who contracted silicosis as a result of breathing silica dust during their work. That case took almost a decade, most of it in legal disputes as to what constitutes a ‘class’. 

Pillay says that the lessons learned in the silicosis litigation will hopefully shorten the time taken to achieve class certification and speed up the legal process.

Under South African law, the complainants must first apply to the court to be certified as a ‘class’ before arguing the merits of their claims. In the silicosis case, 19 gold mining companies settled with the miners before the merits of the case were argued. 

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Moneyweb reached out to South32, BHP Billiton and Seriti Power and the following responses were received:


“South32 can confirm it has been served with an application for certification of a class action on behalf of certain mine workers at coal mines in South Africa.  

“South32 owned and operated South Africa Energy Coal (SAEC) from 2015 to 2021.

“This matter is currently being considered by the business. We are unable to comment further at this point in time.”


“Seriti confirms it has been served papers by RSI (Richard Spoor Inc.).

“Attorneys related to an intended class action in respect of occupational diseases related to coal dust.

“The company will comment further once it has had an opportunity to study the papers and consult with its legal advisors.”

No response had been received from BHP Billiton at the time of publication.

This article is republished from Moneyweb n under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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