By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Anglo American Plc's South African unit will face a hearing next year to determine if it is liable for miners who contracted the lung disease silicosis while working in its gold shafts, lawyers for the plaintiffs said on Monday.
Anglo American no longer has gold assets in South Africa, but the proceedings, initiated by 18 plaintiffs, have been launched on the grounds that miners contracted the debilitating disease when the company still ran bullion mines.
The arbitration hearing is scheduled to begin on September 2, 2013 and will be presided over by a panel including South Africa's former chief justice, Sandile Ngcobo, they said.
"The hearing will determine if Anglo American South Africa is liable to compensate the plaintiffs," said Richard Meeran, a partner at UK-based law firm Leigh Day & Co, which is representing the miners along with the Legal Resources Centre and Legal Aid South Africa.
A spokesman for Anglo American in South Africa said the group and plaintiffs had signed an arbitration agreement.
"All parties are satisfied that the arbitration agreement represents the most effective way to reach a resolution on these claims," said Pranill Ramchander.
The case is separate from a silicosis class action suit filed in August against AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony on behalf of thousands of workers.
In the Anglo American case, proceedings were first issued in 2004 by 18 former gold miners who are suffering from silicosis. Three of these men have since died.
Legal and industry experts have said the different suits, if successful, could cost the industry billions of dollars.
Miners contracted silicosis, which has no known cure, by working in gold mines for many years without adequate protection. The silica dust that causes the disease is inhaled from gold-bearing rocks.
The disease causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and chest pains. It also makes people highly susceptible to tuberculosis, which can kill.
Tens of thousands of black miners from South Africa and neighboring countries are believed to have contracted silicosis during the decades of white apartheid rule, when their health and safety were not priorities of the country's gold barons.
(Additional reporting by Sherilee Lakmidas; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and David Holmes)