Asbestos miners win right to sue in Britain

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The Independent Online

More than 3,000 South African miners and their families suffering from asbestos-related diseases won the right to sue for damages in the British courts yesterday when the House of Lords overturned a Court of Appeal decision against them.

More than 3,000 South African miners and their families suffering from asbestos-related diseases won the right to sue for damages in the British courts yesterday when the House of Lords overturned a Court of Appeal decision against them.

Cape plc, a British company, could be forced to pay millions of pounds to the former employees, who have won legal aid to sue the firm after its operations in the Sixties and Seventies left their towns in the Northern Cape contaminated.

The law lords agreed the legal action should be launched in Britain, saying the claimants would be denied justice if they were forced to pursue their case in South Africa. The claimants' lawyers feared courts there would bounce the case back to the UK because Cape no longer operates in the country.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the senior law lord, said there was no convincing evidence legal aid would be available in South Africa. Lawyers with expertise in personal injury could not afford to take the case on a "no win, no fee" basis and there were no developed procedures for such group actions.

Sitting with Lords Steyn, Hoffmann, Hope of Craighead and Hobhouse of Woodborough, Lord Bingham said the central thrust of the claim was that Cape knew asbestos exposure was gravely injurious to health but failed to ensure proper working practices and safety precautions were observed.

Cape sold its South African plants in 1979. One in seven people in the town of Prieska, where the company had a mill, now has asbestosis. Eight out of ten black miners at the nearby Koegas mine who died over a five-year period also had the disease.

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

Ben Jackson, director of Action for Southern Africa, which has campaigned for the miners, said the ruling was a landmark judgment. "We welcome the way the Lords have upheld the principle that a British-based company will be held accountable by the courts in Britain."

Geoff Myer, a solicitor with Davies, Arnold, Cooper, which represents Cape, said the company was not responsible for the actions of its former South African subsidiaries. Cape plc was a 100 per cent shareholder in a holding company for the South African mines, he said. "We will have to discuss the matter with our clients and decide which way to go, but on the face of it it looks as if we will have to fight it to trial," he said.