Making the most of UK connections

Roger Pearson looks ahead

The High Court scene is set for two legal battles which could have far-reaching implications for workers in undeveloped countries who suffer illness or injury working in their homelands for companies with UK power bases.

Leigh Day & Co's Richard Meeran is spear-heading claims over the death and illness of workers at a South African mercury processing plant and a Namibian Uranium mine.

But he is spearheading them not in South Africa or Namibia, but in the UK. This is being done on the basis that although the alleged mercury and uranium poisoning took place in South Africa and Namibia the companies concerned are sufficiently connected with the UK for the claims to be mounted here.

The workers would be precluded from mounting worthwhile claims in their own countries by laws which would entitle them to only nominal damages. But Meeran says he and his firm are satisfied, given the company links, that the UK is an appropriate forum.

In the mercury poisoning case UK companies are Thor Chemicals Holdings Ltd of Margate, Kent, and an associated company, Thor Chemicals (UK) Ltd of Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire. They and their chairman, chemical engineer Desmond Cowley are being sued by the relatives of one South African who died as a result of alleged mercury poisoning at a plant in South Africa between 1991 and 1992 and two others who developed debilitating illnesses.

They are alleged to have been among 29 workers said to have suffered as a result of processes used at the Cato Ridge plant in Natal, of Thor Chemicals SA (Proprietary) Ltd between April 1991 and January 1992.

Meeran says the deaths followed the setting up of a mercury processing operation in South Africa after the closure of Thor's mercury processing operations at Margate, Kent.

In the uranium poisoning case the claim has been launched by a worker from the Rossing Mine, against the London based RTZ Corporation plc. He claims he contracted laryngeal cancer as a result of lack of protection while working at the mine.

The reason the claim in this case has been launched in the UK is because, although not a wholly owned subsidiary of RTZ, Rossing Uranium Ltd is said to be a subsidiary controlled by RTZ employees.