Test cases pave the way for mineworkers' ill-health claims

Six test cases, which succeeded in the High Court in January 1998, may have paved the way for tens of thousands of British mineworkers to claim compensation for ill health caused by over-exposure to coal dust.

On 23 January 1998, the High Court in London ruled in nine test cases brought by ex-mineworkers suing British Coal, the former nationalised coal authority, for causing them chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The outcome was eagerly awaited by tens of thousands other potential claimants, and could affect miners who worked in coalmines as long ago as 1947. Over 100 other cases are already awaiting judgment and there are thousands of other claims pending, according to solicitors working on behalf of injured former members of the National Union of Mineworkers. The test cases, taken by ex-miners from the Durham, Yorkshire and South Wales coalfields took 17 months to reach the High Court.

The risk of miners developing pneumoconiosis as a result to exposure to coal dust have long been known, but it is only recently that the link between coal dust and other chest problems such as bronchitis and emphysema has been established. Chronic bronchitis in miners occurs when the linings of the lungs are irritated by coal dust, causing lung congestion which leads to heavy coughing. Emphysema is the name given to irreversible restrictions of the lungs' ability to take in air and turn it into the vital oxygen that the body needs. The condition leads to severe breathlessness, restricted movement and in some cases to death through suffocation.

Six of the nine cases were successful, with the High Court ruling that British Coal was negligent in the operation of coal mines at colliery, area and national level and awarding the miners concerned between GBP 5,000 and GBP 32,000. The Court also ordered British Coal to pay more than 99% of the cost involved in bringing the cases to court. The Court criticised British Coal for unnecessarily lengthening the case and gave it and the Department of Trade and Industry 28 days to put forward proposals for a formal scheme which will set the framework for compensation payments to thousands of miners and their families.

The judgment will also mean that, where it can be shown that a miner died because of breathing excessive amounts of coal dust, his widow or dependants will be entitled to compensation for their bereavement. John Monks, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary, said that: "I very much welcome the High Court judgment. The onus is now on government to set up, as quickly as possible, a simple compensation scheme that gives help to these victims - many of whom are now very ill."

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