Anglo American escapes lawsuit over Zambian lead poisoning allegations

Anglo American

Anglo American headed off a legal challenge that could have seen it face a class action over allegations that a mine in which it held a stake for almost 50 years poisoned tens of thousands of people in Zambia with lead.

South Africa’s High Court dismissed an application for the case brought by 12 plaintiffs from the town of Kabwe with costs, according to a copy of the ruling distributed on Saturday.

Mbuyisa Moleele and Leigh Day, the law firms for those plaintiffs, had said they could represent as many as 142,000 plaintiffs. They will appeal the ruling.

Anglo has denied that it’s responsible for the lead poisoning related to the Broken Hill mine. The company said it only held a stake in the operator of that mine from 1925 until 1974 when it was nationalized. Lead poisoning can cause health problems ranging from learning difficulties to infertility, brain damage and, in some cases, death. 

“The applicants seek permission to advance an untenable claim that would set a grave precedent,” Judge Leonie Windell said in her ruling.

“The precedent is that a business could be held liable half a century after its activities have ceased, to generations not yet born, as a result of being tested against future knowledge and standards unknown at the time.”

The ruling will ease legal pressure on London-based Anglo as lawyers have targeted the company and other miners for decades for what they say was inattention to the health impact of their operations on workers and communities in southern Africa. 

The group lawsuit, filed in South Africa because Anglo was headquartered in Johannesburg when it held the Broken Hill mine stake, follows several similar cases.

In 2018, Anglo and five other companies paid about $390 million to settle a class action by former gold miners suffering from the respiratory disease silicosis. Gencor Ltd. — a mining conglomerate that has now closed — in 2003 paid $60 million to settle claims from asbestos miners in South Africa.

Lawyers have this year filed applications to have lawsuits brought by coal miners who worked at operations once owned by Anglo as well as a number of other companies, including Glencore, certified as class actions.

The Zambian case was supported by a number of United Nations agencies focused on human rights as well as Amnesty International.

“We are extremely disappointed by the judgment, which we consider to be fundamentally flawed,” Zanele Mbuyisa, a founding partner of Mbuyisa Moleele, said in a statement.

“We remain committed to securing justice for the 140,000 women and children affected by lead poisoning in Kabwe, and the communities have made their intention to appeal very clear.”