Sick mineworkers in fight for compensation

Industrial disease: Unions spearhead court battle to seek justice for men who claim their lungs were destroyed by coal dust
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Hundreds of former mineworkers crippled by lung diseases have begun a series of legal actions against British Coal seeking substantial compensation.

The first cases being brought by the pit supervisors' union Nacods on behalf of former miners suffering from complaints such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and pneumoconiosis are in preparation to go to the High Court.

The claims are being made on behalf of former miners who have not received benefits through existing schemes for sufferers from serious lung diseases because they do not qualify or have received money but say it is insufficient. Most are in their sixties and seventies.

British Coal, which looks after the outstanding business of the old National Coal Board, is rejecting the claims. A spokesman blamed the unions and lawyers for "encouraging people to register, so unleashing a second wave after the Government had widened the net in order to be more compassionate" - a reference to the benefits scheme in which British Coal plays no part.

The action began among South Wales miners but has now spread around the country. In the last few weeks, 160 mineworkers have been seen by solicitors in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, acting on behalf of the Union of Democratic Miners. John Bonser, of the UDM, said solicitors had been instructed to gather evidence with a view to taking British Coal to court, which would then "open the gate to others".

Solicitors to Nacods, Hugh James Jones and Jenkins, have made a selection of cases which span a range of medical conditions, rather than take all the cases to court together.

The National Union of Mineworkers is suspending action pending the outcome of a report to the Government on the system of benefits for ex-mineworkers with serious respiratory conditions. The report, carried out by the Government- appointed Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, is expected shortly.

The issue is the alleged connection between years of exposure by mineworkers to coal dust and the onset of lung diseases, and the eligibility of the men to claim lump-sum compensation from their former employer.

The unions argue that the Government has already opened the door to compensation by categorising emphysema and chronic bronchitis as industrial diseases in September 1993 - conditions that are not exclusive to miners. A scheme for miners with pneumoconiosis was set up over 20 years ago.

Benefits can total up to pounds 95 a week. But only 5,050 miners have been awarded such help out of 47,000 applicants. Some have appealed successfully, but for some the outcome is too late - benefit is awarded after the applicant has died. Applicants must have spent 20 years working underground; have been diagnosed with bronchitis or emphysema; and have lost one-third of their lung function.

Bleddwn Hancock, of Nacods, has accused British Coal of being "totally obstructive" and urged the company to spare "these very sick men" the ordeal of lengthy litigation.