British Coal workers secure court date for group action over cancer and breathing diseases

Modern coke works in operation in 2014.
Modern coke works in operation in 2014.

Specialist lawyers representing more than 350 former British Coal coke oven workers who developed lung and skin cancer and respiratory diseases, as well as families who lost loved ones, have been given a High Court date to review their application for a mass legal action.

Expert law firms Irwin Mitchell and Hugh James are applying for a Group Litigation Order to begin a Group Action claim against British Coal, Coal Products Limited and National Smokeless Fuels Limited after hundreds of workers suffered illness following exposure to dust and fumes at a number of coking plants around the country, including in Scotland, the North East, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and South Wales.

It is alleged that British Coal and their subsidiaries, Coal Products and National Smokeless Fuels failed to identify the risks associated with exposure to dust and fumes working in this environment and, as a result, did not implement protective measures to prevent workers’ exposure to the harmful dust and fumes when working around, or on, the coking ovens.

The High Court will hear the application for a Group Litigation Order on 28th July which, if successful, will allow the claims to be considered as a group with a number of clients chosen as ‘test’ cases for the litigation.

Roger Maddocks, a Partner and expert industrial illness lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “The application for a Group Litigation Order against British Coal is the latest in a long line of important milestones in the fight for justice for former coke oven workers and the families who have lost loved ones who worked at these plants.”

“We regularly see cases where people have developed serious and in some cases fatal cancers and respiratory diseases as a result of the failures of their employers to ensure they were not breathing in hazardous substances during their working day. Every worker has the right to be able to go to work every day without the fear of exposure to fumes and materials that could cause them serious health issues.

“These workers have been failed by their employers. As a result they and their families have endured significant suffering, which is absolutely unacceptable as their illnesses were entirely preventable.

“Over the past two years we have been working to gather the evidence needed to ensure every worker affected by the poor management of risks in the coking industry will have their opportunity for justice. The application for a Group Litigation Order is another step towards this and one that we hope will help to provide answers and closure for the individuals involved, as well as their families.”

Irwin Mitchell and Hugh James are also currently investigating several hundred similar claims for former British Steel employees and similar action is contemplated in respect of their claims shortly.

Kathryn Singh, Partner and expert in industrial illness claims at Hugh James, commented: “The Group Litigation Order hearing will be an important step in helping former British Coal employees and their families to secure justice for the ill health they suffered as a result of working at these plants.

“These illnesses have been caused by the negligence of employers in failing to provide safe working conditions, for which many people in South Wales are now paying the price.

“There are also a number of people in Wales who worked at various British Steel plants whose claims are being investigated, and we will be following a similar process for those in respect of seeking a court hearing date.”

Background to the action

The cases against British Coal and British Steel were able to proceed following rulings in a test case in October 2012 related to National Coal’s operation of a Phurnacite plant in South Wales.

It was ruled that British Coal had failed to protect workers against inhalation of dust and fumes, with protection only being introduced in 1981 after workers had been exposed for a number of decades.

Former coke oven workers also became entitled to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in August 2012, after a paper from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in September 2011 found the risk of contracting lung cancer increased significantly where employees had spent more than 5 years working on the tops of coke ovens or 15 years working on or around the ovens.

At a hearing held in October 2014, the High Court was informed of the progress of the claims against British Coal and British Steel and details of the group actions being prepared against the companies were outlined.

Anyone who believes they or loved ones developed skin or lung cancer, or respiratory diseases following dust and fume exposure at coking plants at sites operated by National Coal Board/British Coal, or its subsidiaries (National Smokeless Fuels, Coal Products) or British Steel or its subsidiaries (including Dorman Long), can contact Irwin Mitchell or Hugh James on 08081631297.