U.S. and South African lawyers are asking a court to allow thousands of miners with lung diseases to sue leading South African gold mining companies they accuse of negligence.

Lawyers say AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony could face the largest damages suit in South African history if the court recognizes their case as a class action.

Gold mining companies could not immediately be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Lead attorney Richard S. Lewis of Hausfeld LLP in Washington, D.C., said the clients include 4,500 former and current miners. Lewis said the case potentially could include hundreds of thousands.

According to documents filed Tuesday at the High Court in Johannesburg, between 320,000 and 500,000 black southern African gold miners have contracted lung diseases in South Africa in recent decades.