He wore the kind of striped shirt and tie favoured by lawyers all over the world but Edgardo Reynoso was standing beneath the canvas of a temporary Red Cross shelter near the San José mine.
The long tables were filled with miners’ families who had gathered to be told that justice would be done and that compensation would be paid for the trauma endured by the 33 men deep under the Atacama desert in northern Chile.
“I am absolutely sure that we will win,” Mr Reynoso said. “There has been a huge violation of the safety rules and regulations of the mines. The damage to these men has been enormous.”
Mr Reynoso, a Chilean industrial lawyer who has previously secured compensation payouts running into millions of pounds, will represent 27 of the miners in criminal and civil litigation. Court papers have already been filed in the criminal case and his submission for the civil trial is expected by the end of the week.
Despite its history of mining Chile has never had a legal case like this. Most previous lawsuits against mining companies have concerned compensation for a death, serious injury or loss of a limb. In this case the submission will claim that the psychological damage sustained by the men while underground has brought their mining careers to a premature end.
The men working at the San José mine were not paid well by Western standards but their wages were far higher than for comparable manual labourers. For the younger miners, in particular, the loss of earnings over a lifetime would be significant if they could not return to the mines.
“This case represents legal history in this country so there are no parameters or precedent when it comes to financial awards,” Mr Reynoso said.
“First we have to wait for the men to be rescued alive but it is likely that they will leave the mine with huge psychological damage. The damage they have already suffered and the possible damage that could occur in the next three or four months 700 metres (2,300ft) below the earth will be extremely serious.”
The drilling of an escape tunnel began yesterday after a delay while a replacement part was sent from Germany. However, the miners still face up to four months inside the mine.
Jaime Mañalich, the Health Minister, said that immediate mental health concerns for the miners had eased but the long-term impact remained unknown.
The civil and criminal cases will be brought jointly against the Government and San Esteban Primera mining company, which owns the San José mine.
“The central tenet of our case is that the safety rules for miners cannot be enforced partially,” Mr Reynoso said. “The company was not prepared and the state should have budgeted the necessary funds to make sure the regulations were followed.”
Sernageomin, the government mining watchdog, has been criticised for failing to ensure that the mine had been thoroughly and regularly inspected. President Piñera sacked three senior officials and promised to overhaul the organisation soon after the tunnel collapse.
Mr Reynoso said that he would continue to make weekly visits to the makeshift encampment at the entrance to the mine until the men were released. A legal adviser has also been stationed inside the camp permanently to answer the families’ questions.
“The camp is an emotional place,” he said. “I asked to talk to the wife of the Bolivian miner, she is 23. She just said: ‘Can you help me?’
“It was very emotional. If the company had paid insurance for the miners it would be different. It made me very angry.”