£1.3million awarded to 20 workers for mercury poisoning

The High Court in London award a total of £1.3 million to twenty miners for mercury poisoning.

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Case details

The claimants all worked as miners in uranium mines or asbestos plants in South Africa. The company that owned the mines and plants was an English multinational and, after a series of Court hearings, the House of Lords gave the workers permission to bring the claim in the English Court.

At the time of the trial, three of the twenty South African workers had died and a number of the others were said to be suffering from serious brain and neurological damage.

The basis of the claim

The miners' employers did not take the necessary care to ensure that there were safe mercury levels at the miners' places of work. The problem was initially recognised in 1992, when three of the miners were taken to hospital suffering from severe mercury poisoning.

The three miners had worked at the defendant's mercury plant in South Africa, and it transpired that a similar plant owned by the same employers in Kent had been repeatedly criticised by the Health and Safety Executive for bad working practices and exposing its work force to high levels of mercury.

The plant in the UK, under significant pressure from the authorities, was closed down in 1987, and the defendant company moved its operations to South Africa. This plant was said to have relied on non-English speaking casual workers, which gave the defendant scope to exploit the working conditions of their employees.

The allegation

The miners argued that the company was aware the staff were exposed to harmful levels of mercury.

Rather than the employer having taken steps to control the level of exposure to mercury, it was alleged that the employer removed workers who had high levels of exposure to mercury and replaced them with casual workers.

Other staff were transferred to work in the factory grounds until their mercury levels were reduced, at which point they went back into the plant.

The High Court decision

The Court found in favour of the group of claimants.

Awards were calculated on the basis of the claimants' injuries.

Total compensation paid to these twenty workers was £1.3 million.

Read more: work accident compensation claims

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Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher

Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher