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Mercury poisoning - South Africa

Leigh Day represented 42 South African workers who had been poisoned by mercury at the Thor factory in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This was the first multinational human rights case in the UK.

Thor Chemicals, a British company manufacturing mercury-based products, came under pressure from the UK Health & Safety Executive over the high levels of mercury in its UK workforce. Rather than improve conditions at the UK factory, the company decided to transfer its operations, including plant and managers, to South Africa.

The Thor plant in South Africa operated in an even more dangerous manner. Workers whose mercury levels hit the upper limit were dismissed or sent to work in the garden. Two workers died of mercury poisoning, one after being in a coma for three years. Many others were poisoned and suffered from a range of severe physical and psychological injuries. Criminal prosecution in South Africa resulted in Thor being fined a mere £3000 for breaches of health and safety regulations. This was no deterrent.

Leigh Day helped the claimants bring their case in the UK, where Thor Chemicals Holdings continued to be based, and secure significant compensation from the company following settlements reached in 1997 and 2000. The 2000 settlement followed  a successful legal challenge by Leigh Day against Thor’s attempt to shift its assets beyond our clients’ reach. In 2000, Thor announced that it had changed its name to Guernica (the name of the town bombed by fascists in the 1930s in the Spanish civil war) supposedly  to signify the fascist attacks made against the company. This demonstrated the powerful deterrent effect of the UK legal case.

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