The Court of Appeal has delivered a potentially knock-out blow to the compensation hopes of a large number of former coal miners who blame cramped working conditions underground for the onset of osteoarthritis of the knee. The court upheld an earlier ruling that, in the majority of the cases, it would not be equitable for the miners’ claims to proceed to trial.
The miners, who worked in the industry at varying times between 1954 and 1994 when the mines were de-nationalised, had engaged in group litigation seeking damages from the Department for Energy and Climate change as successor to the liabilities of the British Coal Corporation.
However, whilst acknowledging that photographs from the relevant period revealed working conditions underground which could only be described as appalling, the court decided that the ‘staleness’ of the cases and the expiry of the relevant limitation period meant that a fair trial of the claims was no longer possible.
Lord Justice Tomlinson, sitting with Lord Justice Mummery and Lady Justice Hallett, observed that there could be other explanations for the damage to the miners’ knees, including obesity and engagement in contact sports. He also noted that, since July 2009, osteoarthritis of the knee has been a prescribed condition attracting benefits under industrial injuries legislation.
Ruling that arguments against the claims being permitted to proceed to trial were ‘in all truth quite overwhelming’, the judge added that, in order to prove their entitlement to compensation, the miners would have to show that they were exposed to an avoidable risk of injury over and above the repeated jarring and stressing of the knee joint that was an inevitable and inherent concomitant of working underground during the relevant period.
The decision means that the miners’ cases are now in danger of being struck out. However, the court granted an opportunity to their lawyers to identify any individual cases where the particular facts may plausibly result in a different outcome.