JOHANNESBURG Lawyers representing gold miners suffering from the deadly lung disease silicosis said on Thursday they had filed a class action lawsuit application against the South African arm of global mining giant Anglo American (AAL.L)(AGLJ.J).
The application by the legal groups from South Africa and Britain is the latest in several class action suits being lined up against South Africa's once mighty gold mining industry.
It is likely to be several months before a judge rules whether the case can proceed.
Anglo American, which switched its headquarters from Johannesburg to London in 1999, no longer has gold mines in South Africa but the lawyers said its Johannesburg-based unit still had assets of around $15 billion.
The lawyers include London's Leigh Day and South Africa's Legal Resources Centre, a practice focusing on human rights.
They allege that Anglo American South Africa was the parent company of 11 gold mines up until 1998 and that it "negligently controlled and advised its mines with regard to prevention of dust exposure and silicosis".
The class action application stems from a case first lodged in 2004 by 18 ex-gold miners who said they contracted silicosis at Anglo's President Steyn mine in the Free State province. At least three of these men have since died.
The two sides agreed last year to go to arbitration, with a hearing chaired by former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo now expected early next year.
Anglo American said it needed to study the latest legal move, but reiterated its previous denials of any wrong-doing.
"Overall Anglo American does not believe it is in any way liable for the silicosis claims and will defend those actions," spokesman Pranill Ramchander said.
The case is separate from a silicosis class action bid filed in December against AngloGold Ashanti (ANGJ.J), Gold Fields (GFIJ.J) and Harmony (HARJ.J) and Anglo American South Africa on behalf of 17,000 former miners.
Silicosis, which has no known cure, is contracted by inhaling tiny particles of silica dust from gold-bearing rocks over many years underground without adequate protection.
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 neighbouring countries are believed to have contracted silicosis during the decades of white-minority rule, when their health and safety were not priorities of the country's gold barons.
If successful, the suits could cost the mining firms billions of dollars, according to legal and industry experts.
The largest settlement to date by the mining industry in South Africa was $100 million in 2003 in a case brought against an asbestos company.
(Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Ed Stoddard)