JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A British court has thrown out a lawsuit against Anglo American South Africa brought by miners who contracted the deadly lung disease silicosis when they worked in South Africa, saying it did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter.
A lawyer for the 2,336 miners said on Wednesday many of them planned to file papers in the next few days in South Africa seeking damages against the South African unit of the global mining giant.
"Anglo American South Africa believes that the court correctly found that the English court does not have jurisdiction to hear this claim," said Anglo American spokesman Pranill Ramchander.
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.
"Today's ruling was a pyrrhic victory for Anglo American, which as the largest gold mining company over the past 50 years still has to face compelling claims by thousands of miners affected by dust-related lung diseases," said Richard Meeran of Leigh Day, which is representing the miners.
"In any event since the judge gave permission to appeal, the UK jurisdiction issue remains live," he added.
The cases to be filed in South Africa will be separate from a class action suit filed earlier this year against the South African arm of Anglo American and 29 other defendants.
Instead it follows on the heels of 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. Four of these 18 men have died since their claims were instituted.
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 neighboring 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 Sherilee Lakmidas, editing by Jon Herskovitz and David Evans)