Complex litigation: Past and present mine workers claim they were exposed to conditions that resulted in them contracting tuberculosis and silicosis. In 2016, the high court gave them the go-ahead for a class-action lawsuit. Picture: ALON SKUY
Complex litigation: Past and present mine workers claim they were exposed to conditions that resulted in them contracting tuberculosis and silicosis. In 2016, the high court gave them the go-ahead for a class-action lawsuit. Picture: ALON SKUY

A settlement estimated at about R5bn is expected to be concluded early in 2018 by six mining companies following a class action brought by mine workers suffering from silicosis and occupational tuberculosis.

The past and present workers have claimed damages from 32 gold-mining companies for contracting these illnesses while working on the mines.

Those involved in the litigation say that a settlement of the case instituted in 2012 is "imminent". The claim was brought against 32 respondents and covered the period 1965 to date.

In May 2016, the high court gave the go-ahead for the class action, which if successful could benefit about 100,000 people.

The action was brought by lawyer Richard Spoor, law firm Abrahams Kiewitz and the Legal Resources Centre.

In a recent presentation to Parliament’s mineral resources committee, former Harmony CEO Graham Briggs, who heads the working group representing six of the mining companies involved, noted that talks with the class-action lawyers — under way since early 2015 — were "well advanced".

The six mining companies involved in the working group are African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye Stillwater.

"From July to September due to the progress made each of the six working group companies made financial provisions based on their estimates of the costs to them respectively of a settlement," Briggs told MPs.

The settlement would include not only the amounts to be paid to claimants but also ensure that as many of the eligible claimants as possible were located and that there was adequate provision for the administration of the trust

The nominal pretax amount came to about R5bn, which would be paid into a trust.

Spoor said that the R5bn was the provision set aside by the six mining companies and that the value of the final settlement amount would be disclosed later. He also said that no agreement had been concluded, but that there was a draft agreement on the table.

The substantive terms had been agreed on and the
focus would now be on improvements and the processes for implementation.

"While we do not have an agreement, we are pretty far along and the substantive terms such as what it is going to cost and what the claimants are going to get, are settled," he said.

The settlement would include not only the amounts to be paid to claimants but also ensure that as many of the eligible claimants as possible were located and that there was adequate provision for the administration of the trust.

One of the main tasks of the trust, which will operate from 10 to 15 years, will be to track and trace eligible claimants.

Briggs said that the terms of any settlement would have to be ratified by the high court.

The committee members heard that the parties to the negotiations had worked hard on reaching settlement. Briggs said that each side believed it had a strong case.

Litigation would probably mean a 10-15-year legal process, the outcome of which was uncertain for all parties.

Such a process would not be in the interests of elderly former employees while shareholders would prefer certainty. Resolution of the litigation had been complex as it involved nine companies, many mines and hundreds of shafts, nine sets of company lawyers, three sets of claimant lawyers and two sets of foreign lawyers, five trade unions, three government departments, nongovernmental groups and former mine worker groups. In addition there had been internal and external tax, finance, actuarial and communication advisers.

Between August 2014 and October 2017, the working-group facilitator had been engaged for 46 weeks on achieving settlement.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za