Law: Millions at stake in ruling on miners' injuries

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The Independent Online
Millions of pounds are at stake as Britain's largest ever industrial damages case comes to a close today. Hundreds of miners suffering diseases linked to exposure to coal dust will be awaiting the High Court ruling on eight test cases. Tony Heath reports.

No one is waiting more anxiously for today's ruling than Glyn Jones, a retired South Wales miner, who suffers severe pneumoconiosis and emphysema. If, as he hopes, Mr Justice Turner finds in favour of his damages claim - and those of seven other miners involved in the test case - not only will he be in line for a substantial sum but it will set a precedent for other cases that could cost the Government hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation.

Lawyers believe it could be the largest damages claim ever in the UK, affecting workers from every former mining region in Britain.

The men's solicitors have argued they should be paid compensation because of evidence which links their chronic ill health to exposure to coal dust while working underground years ago.

Today, as he awaits news from the High Court in London, Mr Jones, 71, will have at hand his life-lines - an inhaler, a nebulizer and an oxygen bottle.

He was just 15 when in 1941 he went underground at Lady Windsor Colliery, near his home village Ynysybwl, outside Pontypridd.

In 1977 he came "up top" to become General Secretary of the Welsh area of the National Association of Colliery Overmen Deputies and Shotfirers (Nacods). He retired 11 years later with the praise of his union and British Coal ringing in his ears - not least for the 22 years he served in the Wales Colliery Rescue Service.

"I was never afraid when I worked underground, but I'm afraid now," he says.

The price of coal was high. Some days it takes Mr Jones an hour to get out of bed and prepare for a walk to the village Post Office - downhill from his home, but requiring a lift back up the slope.

A lifelong non-smoker, for 17 years, he played for the local rugby XV which back in the 1950s humbled Pontypridd, now one of the giants of the game.

The human cost is understood by Bleddyn Hancock, current general secretary of the South Wales area of Nacods. Because British Coal persistently denied liability, he took the plunge and in 1989 contacted solicitors Hugh James.

In 1992, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council recommended that diseases such as emphysema should be recognised as industrial diseases.

Yet British Coal continued its intransigent stand. When the number of cases topped 200, Mr Justice Turner was assigned to the action, ordering that the eight test cases should go ahead. During the eight-year marathon there were wide-spread allegations that the authorities were playing for time while potential claimants died off.

British Coal no longer exists. Solicitor Mr Evans says: "British Coal always maintained a contingency fund for damages. And they indicated that the Government would accept responsibility."

Nacods estimates that settlement of the 200-odd claims could run up a pounds 40m bill. Mr Hancock said: "If every miner suffering in the same way made a successful claim, the bill could run to pounds 750m."