JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African lawyer has moved to file a class action suit against more than 30 gold firms on behalf of 17,000 former miners who say they contracted the debilitating lung disease silicosis due to negligence in health and safety.
The companies include third-largest global bullion producer AngloGold Ashanti, fourth-largest Gold Fields and Harmony Gold. Also named is Anglo American's South African unit, which owned gold assets in the past but no longer produces it.
Attorney Richard Spoor said on Friday he had filed last week for class certification for an action for damages in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
"We need to ask the court for permission to proceed on a class action basis. We filed the papers last week, and that matter will have to be argued in the court if it's opposed," Spoor said.
He expected the matter to be heard in April or May of next year.
The damages sought in what could be Africa's biggest ever class action suit have not been disclosed but could be huge at a time when South Africa's mining industry faces soaring power and wage costs as well as violent labor militancy.
Spoor has so far signed up 17,000 plaintiffs from South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho, the landlocked kingdom that has provided hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to South Africa's gold mines over the past century, he said.
Spoor said the number of plaintiffs was growing by around 500 a month.
The planned suit, which has little precedent in South African law, has its roots in a landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court that for the first time allowed lung-diseased miners to sue their employers for damages.
Silicosis is a chronic and progressive disease that cannot be cured. Miners contract it by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks.
African Rainbow Minerals, one of the companies named, said it was "too soon to discuss the outcome of the matter as none of the merits of the matter has yet been established, let alone tested in court".
An Anglo American spokesman said, "We are aware of the case, but Anglo American has not yet been served, so it would not be appropriate to comment any further."
AngloGold Ashanti, which is not part of Anglo American, said it had received and was reviewing Spoor's application to the court.
"AngloGold Ashanti works to prevent future incidences of occupational lung disease through continual improvements in underground dust management and reducing the dust exposure of our mining employees. The health and safety of AngloGold Ashanti employees is central to how we run our business," it said.
Officials from Gold Fields, Harmony and some of the other companies named were not immediately available for comment.
The companies named in the filing owned or operated 78 different gold mines from 1965 to the present.
(Reporting by Ed Stoddard and Sherilee Lakmidas; editing by Jane Baird and Anthony Barker)