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Johannesburg - A group of Transnet pensioners scored a significant victory when the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria dismissed the bulk of Transnet’s exceptions to their multibillion-rand claim against the company.

The judgment is part of an ongoing legal battle between the state-owned entity and about 60 000 ex-workers who have instituted a class action lawsuit, now estimated at more than R80 billion.

Read: Transnet pensioners hope for payout

The North Gauteng High Court dealt with exceptions raised by Transnet and the two funds to the pensioners’ claim.

“An exception provides a useful mechanism for weeding out cases without legal merit,” North Gauteng High Court Judge Francis Legodi said.

Last week’s decision increases the chances of the matter going to court for a hearing. It comes after the South Gauteng High Court earlier this month ruled in favour of a group of miners and gave them the go-ahead to launch a silicosis class action against a number of mining companies.

Three claims

The pensioners are suing the Transport Pension Fund and Transnet Second Defined Benefit Fund. They have cited Transnet as the third defendant in the case.

The pensioners’ case rests on three claims – that the funds increase the pension benefits by at least 70 percent of the rate of inflation with effect from 2003; that Transnet pay a R17.1bn plus interest “legacy debt” to the funds; and that the court render unlawful and invalid an undertaking by trustees of the Transport Fund to donate 40 percent of its members’ surplus to Transnet.

The pensioners allege that the donation is unlawful and want Transnet to pay R309 million plus interest.

Transnet objected to all the demands, and branded them as “vague and embarrassing”, Judge Legodi said.

He dismissed the objections to the pensioners’ demand that the funds should continue with the practice of increasing pensions by at least 70 percent of inflation, as they had done between 1989 and 2002.

The judge dismissed the objection as “technical and without substance”.

The funds alleged, in their objection, that the pensioners’ claim had no details, including lack of information on who would determine the pension increase; when such a decision would be made; and when the pension increase provision would terminate.

The judge said there was “some merit” in the funds’ contention. “Failure to state the period within which the promise will endure is a material omission.”

On the legacy debt, the court ruled in favour of the pensioners. “I find that there is no merit to the suggestion that (the pensioners’) claim lacks the averment necessary to sustain a cause of action or that it is bad in law,” he said.

Objection dismissed

The judge also dismissed the objection to the pensioners’ claim that Transnet should be liable for repayment of the R309m. The court, however, dismissed the pensioners’ claim on unfair labour practice.

“For reliance on unfair labour practice, it must be pleaded that there was, and that there is still, a relationship between the employer and employee,” Judge Legodi said.

In a statement on their website, the pensioners’ lawyers Geyser and Coetzee Attorneys, said the pensioners’ legal team had 14 days within which to amend their information on those aspects in which the court upheld Transnet and the funds’ objections.

Richard Carr of the Transnet Pensioners Action Group said on Friday that they were “extremely” pleased with the judgment.

“At long last, the way is now open for the case to be heard in court,” Carr said.

Transnet has declined to comment on the ruling.

“The pension class action is the subject of an ongoing court process. Transnet, therefore, would prefer not to comment on the details of the case until the process is concluded,” the company said in a statement.