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Monday, July 5, 1999 Published at 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK

Business: The Company File

Asbestos victims' court battle

One of the controversial mining sites in Northern Cape

The High Court is considering whether thousands of South African miners who are suffering from asbestos-related diseases should have their claims for compensation heard in Britain.

[ image: In the UK, there have been information campaigns on asbestos]
In the UK, there have been information campaigns on asbestos
They say they became ill while working for a British company and should be able to sue the firm in this country.

Mr Justice Buckley must decide in a week-long hearing whether to "stay" the action brought against Cape plc of Uxbridge, west London, which would mean the case having to proceed in South Africa.

Lawyers for the claimants are contesting the move, claiming that there is no mechanism for "group" actions in South Africa.

Cape's QC, Brian Doctor, told the judge: "These events occurred in South Africa and that's where the information has to be looked for."

Landmark case

He said Cape which now worked in asbestos removal, had sold its mines in 1979 and had no interests in South Africa.

None of its current employees had anything to do with the events involved in the claim, or had any personal knowledge of them.

Mr Doctor said that the allegations against Cape had to be "investigated from scratch" and could not be done "in house".

The company had very little documentation relating to South Africa and, apart from board memos, nothing prior to 1971.

South Africa was not the equivalent of a suburb in London, he added. "It is a vast country in which asbestos is found naturally. It has been mined for 100 years and there are vast deposits of the stuff all over.

"It has been mined by large numbers of people including Cape."

He added that it was possible to conclude from surveys carried out that merely living in certain parts of South Africa exposed one to enough asbestos to cause asbestos-related disease.

Mr Doctor told the judge: "What you are being asked to do today is to consider which is the appropriate forum for this trial - the one in which the action can be tried more suitably for the interests of the parties and the ends of justice."

The question, he added, was whether a group action involving up to 4,000 claimants could be brought in England.

'Tip of the iceberg'

The Court of Appeal decided at an earlier hearing that it was appropriate for the cases of five of the claimants to proceed in this country.

But Cape says the situation is changed by the numbers now involved and claims that the court saw only "the tip of the iceberg"" and did not appreciate the extent of what it was testing.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing, there is likely to be an appeal.

The workers say they contracted asbestosis while working for Cape in the 1970s, by inhaling the dust daily.

If they win the right to take action, the case may mean other UK companies with overseas subsidiaries could face similar challenges over their actions, dating back many years.

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