A former mine worker's bid to sue his former employer, AngloGold Ashanti, for R2.7 million after he became ill following exposure to dust and gas in a gold mine was one of the most important occupational health cases in South African legal history, Willem le Roux, the lawyer for the gold mining company, said yesterday.
Success in the court action could result in the launching of class actions by other sick former mine workers against their former employers, making the companies vulnerable to contingent liabilities running into billions of rands.
He (Mankayi) was employed at the company's Vaal Reefs gold mine for 16 years, until he was dismissed on grounds of medical incapacity after falling ill in 1995. Mankayi had contracted silicosis and silico-tuberculosis (also known as phthisis) after exposure to harmful dust and gases in the mine.
The mining company has challenged, by way of an exception, Mankayi's right to sue his erstwhile employer by virtue of the provisions of section 35 of the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act.
AngloGold Ashanti argues that Mankayi received a once-off, lump sum payment of R16 316 he received from the compensation commissioner for occupational diseases.
This is the amount to which he was entitled to in terms of the act, which regulates the compensation payable to mine workers who contract a lung disease on the job.
Le Roux said the court had to decide if the exception was valid and if the indemnity in section 35 of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida) was correct that employees could not sue their employers.
If the court ruled in the mining company's favour, it would establish a precedent. As a result, similar cases could not be brought to court unless Mankayi successfully appealed the matter before the supreme court of appeal.
"It's an exceptional case, in the sense that there is no judgment in this regard because of the fact that Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act came into operation in 1973," said Le Roux. "It would establish a principle and is of course of great significance. [It] is one of the most important cases in occupational diseases up to now."
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