A South African court on Friday granted thousands of former gold miners who contracted lung diseases the right to sue 32 mining companies, paving the way for the largest class action lawsuit in the country's history.

The South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg said miners who had contracted tuberculosis or silicosis and their family members were allowed to launch the lawsuit to seek compensation for the lung diseases, which led to several deaths.

The number of claimants could range from between 17,000 to 500,000, according to estimates from mining experts.

Analysts say the lawsuit could cost mining companies hundreds of millions of dollars. National Union of Mineworkers deputy president Joseph Montisetsi told dpa compensation will depend on the seriousness of the disease in each case.

A class action lawsuit was the only realistic way for impoverished mine workers, many of whom were immigrants, to access legal assistance, Judge Phineas Mojapelo said in the court session broadcast live by the television station eNCA.

The miners say they became ill because the mining companies did not take sufficient measures to protect their health while underground.

The case dates back several years and involves some miners who contracted diseases in the 1960s.

Some of the miners were in the court room to hear the ruling.

"This is a victory for the mineworkers and their families," Montisetsi said, adding mineworkers were still inhaling dust and contracting lung diseases.

He accused mining companies of failing to invest in technology that would stabilize dust levels in mines.

Six mining companies said they would study the court's decision.

"Each company is yet to decide whether to lodge an appeal against the finding," said the Occupational Lung Disease Working Group, which represents African Rainbow Minerals, AngloAmerican, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye Gold.

Issues related to compensation for occupational lung disease "need to be addressed through engagement between stakeholders" to seek a "comprehensive solution that is both fair to past, present and future gold mining employees, and also sustainable for the sector," the companies said in a statement.

South Africa's "embattled mining sector now faces expensive pay-outs on a massive scale that it can ill-afford," said Ruth Bookbinder, Africa analyst at the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

"Mounting legal costs will badly hit mining companies that are already struggling. Thousands of jobs cuts are already anticipated across the sector this year, and greater financial losses could lead to more redundancies," she added.

South Africa is one of the world's largest gold exporters.

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