Up to 100,000 former pitmen could now be in line for compensation following a ruling that the old nationalised coal industry was negligent and liable for the ill-health of underground workers.
In a particularly controversial passage of his judgment, Mr Justice Turner said that managers had frequently falsified the measurement of coal dust in working areas so that production was not impaired.
While individuals could eventually receive tens of thousands of pounds each for "shock, pain and suffering", some union officials said the payouts are likely to be "puny" when compared with the kind of compensation enjoyed in other employment cases. One female local authority official was recently awarded more than pounds 230,000 for "hurt feelings" and in aggravated damages after a sex-discrimination case. Many of the former miners have had their lives blighted by crippling diseases for years, the unions pointed out yesterday.
The level of payment to former pitmen will clearly depend on their age, the degree of incapacity they have suffered and whether they are capable of earning a living. Some sources said the payouts were likely to vary between pounds 2,000 and pounds 60,000. Mr Justice Turner will hear evidence on 6 February about claims for loss of earnings, medical care and costs.
Union officials and solicitors immediately warned former miners that "all sorts of vultures" were descending on their communities offering advice in return for a percentage of the compensation. Special help lines have been set up by solicitors.
Tom Jones, of solicitors Thompsons, which represented one of the six men who were successful in the test case, said the ruling would lead to the highest ever compensation bill for a single British employer. While British Coal would have been liable before it was wound up, the bill was now the responsibility of the Government.
Mr Jones pointed out that the state had received pounds 1bn from the sale of British Coal land and had recently raked in pounds 770m from a surplus in the industry's pension fund. "This massive judgment brings hope to tens of thousands of miners who have had their health destroyed by the negligence of British Coal," he said, adding that Thompsons has some 3,000 cases in the pipeline.
The solicitor accused senior coal industry managers of putting production before the health of miners. "There are some at the top levels of British Coal who should hang their heads in shame at this judgment," Mr Jones said.
Former miners will now be seeking medical evidence to back up claims, while officials are likely to argue that some of the illnesses may be due other causes such as cigarette smoking. Any underground worker who was employed in the industry since it was nationalised in 1947 is covered by yesterday's judgment.
The first hearings began in October 1996 and the case ran for most of last year.Reuse content