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Posted On: Jan. 28, 1996 12:00 AM CST

LONDON-A U.K. High Court judge's finding that a mining company can be sued for failing to prevent injuries from vibrating equipment like drills may open the floodgates to injury claims from miners.

The judge found that British Coal Corp. should have taken steps as far back as 1975 to prevent workers who used pneumatic drills and other power tools from suffering a cumulative trauma disease known as "vibration white finger."

The ruling, issued earlier this month by Judge John Stephenson of the High Court in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, clears the way for nine miners to bring suit against the company in test cases that may lay the groundwork for hundreds of additional lawsuits.

Judge Stephenson said that British Coal should have known of the occupational risks that cause VWF as early as Jan. 1, 1973, and should have implemented preventive measures as of Jan. 1, 1975. He added that he was following established legal principles that place a duty on an employer to keep reasonably abreast of developing knowledge on industrial diseases and not be slow to apply preventive measures.

A British Coal spokesman said, "It is inappropriate to comment in detail before we have had time to consider the judgment and its implications in full."

Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, predicted the judgment could lead to VWF claims from more than 1,000 miners and excavation pit workers, with the final bill for damages against employers reaching as high as 150 million ($226.5 million).

The nine miners in the test case are represented by solicitors who represent 500 mine workers.

However, by the time additional cases and any probable appeals are heard, it is likely that British Coal will have been liquidated, leaving any awards to fall on U.K. taxpayers. British Coal already is little more than a shell company as its mines are being sold off as part of U.K. government privatization measures.

VWF, caused by prolonged exposure to vibration, impairs the circulation and neurological function of the hand and can cause permanent damage to nerves, muscles and bones in the fingers. Apart from mining, this repetitive strain injury has been reported in the construction, shipbuilding and steel industries.