Miners win battle for pounds 500m award

Safety at work: Judge slams mining industry's 'appalling and cynical disregard' for health and safety of its workers
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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of miners who suffered a debilitating condition as a result of years spent working at the coalface won their historic battle for compensation yesterday.

In a decision that could see up to pounds 500m paid in compensation, the Court of Appeal ruled that British Coal was liable for all cases of Vibration White Finger (VWF), or Raynaud's disease in its miners. The condition, which affects the functioning of the hands and fingers, is caused by prolonged exposure to vibration - typically from pneumatic drills or other such tools.

The ruling comes as the Government waits to learn how much money it will have to pay out to former miners claiming compensation for breathing in coal dust. There are up to 50,000 miners claiming.

Yesterday three Court of Appeal judges ruling on VWF said the Coal Board, run by the Department of Trade and Industry since privatisation, should have warned the miners of the dangers they faced. They should also have carried out more checks on the miners.

Lord Justice Judge, who yesterday ruled on nine test cases representative of 25,000 others, said: "Provided the condition is recognised in its early minor form it will normally be cured by removing the employee in question from work with vibrating tools."

Roger Maddocks, a solicitor who represented many of the miners, said the Government's appeal had been pointless. "Taxpayers will now pick up the bill. They should demand to know how a nationalised industry could be run with such appalling, and at times cynical, disregard for the health and safety of those who worked in it."

Another solicitor, Andrew Tucker, a partner of Irwin Mitchell, added: "The war has been won by the miners and we have shown that the Government's decision to appeal against the compensation levels was always misconceived."

The legal action dated from 1991, when thousands of miners claimed for compensation. Since then there have been two High Court trials and two appeals.

While British Coal had admitted it did nothing to minimise the risk of injury, it was not prepared to admit that any of the miners were actually suffering from VWF.

After yesterday's ruling the energy minister, John Battle, promised that the Government would try to ensure compensation claims were dealt with quickly.

Up to 3,000 of the more seriously affected miners could expect interim payments of pounds 1,000 within three weeks. Damages awards challenged by British Coal ranged from pounds 5,456 to pounds 50,546.

Mr Battle said: "We sought clarification because we believed that was the prudent and responsible course of action. We now have that clarification. Miners with valid claims will be compensated fairly and in line with the court's ruling.

"We were certainly not out to reduce levels of compensation below what the court deems fair.

"This was not a cost-reduction exercise but about delivering fairness and justice."

Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, said: "The Court of Appeal's decision means thousands of miners will benefit and compensation could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.It vindicates the long campaign conducted by the National Union of Mineworkers for justice for all miners suffering from this dreadful disease."

Up to 50,000 former miners are claiming compensation from the Government for the effects of breathing in coal dust.

A Bristol court stayed a decision on the claims earlier this week.