By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Anglo American's South African arm has settled a compensation claim by 23 gold miners with the lung disease silicosis, bringing an industry-wide deal potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars closer, a lawyer said on Wednesday.
Details of the settlement are confidential although Richard Meeran, the London-based lawyer who first brought the suit against the global mining giant in 2004, said he and his clients were "very happy" with the deal.
Anglo American sold off its gold assets over a decade ago but this suit and similar initiatives are based on its past as a bullion producer.
The firm said the settlement involved no admission of liability and was in the best interests of the plaintiffs, their families and the company.
"Technically, no legal precedent has been set but the fact of this settlement sends a signal," Meeran told a news conference in Johannesburg. "This settlement today shows that the writing is on the wall for the industry."
Of the 23 initial claimants, eight have already died of silicosis, an illness caused by the inhalation of tiny particles of silica dust from gold-bearing rocks over many years without adequate protection.
It causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and chest pains, and makes its victims highly susceptible to tuberculosis.
Tens of thousands of black miners from South Africa and neighboring countries are believed to have contracted silicosis during the decades of apartheid rule, when their health and safety were not priorities of the white gold barons.
"We continue to work with industry, government and civil society to tackle the many challenges of primary health care in South Africa," Anglo American said in a statement.
The Meeran suit is one of several being brought on behalf of silicosis victims against South Africa's once-mighty gold industry and had been scheduled for arbitration in February before a panel of senior South African judges.
In another case, human rights lawyer Richard Spoor filed an application in December for a class action suit on behalf of 17,000 former gold miners from South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho against more than 30 gold firms, including AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony.
The case, which has little precedent in South African law, would be likely to be Africa's biggest class action suit and could result in a payout running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Spoor's suit is based on a 2011 constitutional court ruling in favor of a silicosis-afflicted miner called Thembekile Mankayi, who was seeking $342,000 in compensation for pain and suffering, loss of earnings and medical expenses.
Mankayi died shortly before the 2011 ruling was delivered.
(Editing by Ed Stoddard and Keiron Henderson)