Mining firm tries to stop asbestosis court case

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A BRITISH company will go to the High Court today to try to block compensation claims by 2,000 workers who are dying of asbestosis.

When Cape closed its South African plants in the 1970s, it left behind a legacy of disease. One in seven of the population of the Northern Cape town of Prieska, where the company had a mill, now has asbestosis. Eight out of ten black miners who died in the nearby Koegas mine in a five-year period had the disease.

The former workers and residents were exposed to levels of asbestos dust up to 35 times the British legal limit. During the Sixties and Seventies the dangers of asbestos were well known, and the claimants say the company must have known it could not operate in those conditions in Britain.

A government health inspector who visited Penge, in the Eastern Transvaal, found children who had the disease before they were 12 years old.

Cupido Adams, one of the complainants in the current case, said he had worked sorting and packing asbestos with his bare hands. He was never given gloves or a mask.

"The dust was everywhere. It lay up to an inch thick. There were no warnings, nothing. Children played in it. I lived half a kilometre from the factory but in order to drink I had to scrape a layer of asbestos off the top of my water jar," he said.

Today's hearing is the latest in a series of attempts by Cape's lawyers to stop the cases coming to court in Britain. The company is trying to challenge a House of Lords ruling that the former workers can sue for damages in the British courts. It says the Law Lords based their judgment on the first five claimants - two of whom have now died - and that they might have made a different decision if they had known about the other cases.

Cape says the claimants should sue in South Africa, but their British lawyers, Leigh Day & Co, says there is a strong chance that the South African courts would refuse to hear the case because it is against a British company.

If Cape had been based anywhere else in Europe, its foreign workers would almost certainly have received compensation by now. High-profile human rights campaigners are pressing the Government to change the law to bring Britain into line with the rest of Europe.

In a letter in today's Independent a group led by the Labour MP Ann Clwyd and the MEP Glenys Kinnock argue that British companies are trying to exploit a legal loophole to stop cases from coming to court.

"We fear that the legal system is failing to deliver justice to people overseas who have suffered through the negligence of British companies," they write. The complainants are also being backed by the World Development Movement and Action for Southern Africa.

Leigh Day is dealing with a series of cases intended to hold British companies accountable for their actions overseas. The company has already won pounds 1.3m damages for 20 workers who suffered mercury poisoning in a factory run by Thor Chemicals of Margate, Kent, and is now pursuing a second case for 20 more. Thor moved its operations to Natal in South Africa in the 1980s after coming under fire from the British Health and Safety Executive.

In a separate case, a Scottish maintenance worker won the right to sue RTZ, now Rio Tinto. He contracted throat cancer after working at the firm's Rossing uranium mine in Namibia.

No one from Cape was available for comment.

Letters, Review, page 2