Historic Victory for Japans Asbestos Victims
After more than a decade, asbestos victims achieved their goal of holding the Japanese Government and building products manufacturers to account for injuries and deaths caused by occupational exposures to asbestos. Despite a prolonged and fierce battle by the defendants, on May 17, 2021 the Supreme Court of Japan issued a plaintiffs verdict in its first unified asbestos judgment. The Court accepted arguments advanced by the legal team representing 500 claimants in class action lawsuits brought by asbestos-injured construction workers or family members at courts in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Kyoto. 1
The Supreme Court confirmed that the Government of Japan had been negligent in delaying action on the asbestos hazard and that manufacturers of building products were liable for damage done by occupational exposure to their asbestos-containing products. Seventy per cent of the claimants in the class actions had died of their injuries since the cases were brought. It is noteworthy that the right of self-employed construction workers to claim compensation for asbestos exposures was confirmed by the Supreme Court.
Shizuo Takahashi (79) was waiting outside the Supreme Court on May 17 to hear the outcome. Having started his career working for a construction company, he became a self-employed carpenter doing home renovation and remodelling projects for thirty years. During that time, he told journalists:
I cut and sanded with an electric saw to attach the heat insulating material, but each time a large amount of pure white powder flew up like a snowstorm and I inhaled a lot. At that time, the danger of asbestos was unknown to me and I didn't wear a protective mask.
As aged 64, he was diagnosed with asbestosis and now needs to be connected to an oxygen cylinder 24 hours a day. At 3:30 p.m. on May 17 Mr. Takahashi learned of the plaintiffs victory:
I want to tell everyone that I've won It's been a long road to arrive here. The danger will continue until the rebuilding [remediation] of existing buildings is completed. I want the country to prevent damage and create a system to provide relief [pay compensation] without [need of] a trial.2
On May 18, 2021, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with the plaintiffs and their lawyers. Apologizing on behalf of the Government, Suga said:
In view of the Supreme Court ruling, we would like to reach a basic agreement toward a swift settlement while paying full respect to your opinions .It is impossible to imagine the extensive burden and the suffering of those who sustained damage to their health and those who lost their loved ones, and I am at a loss for words. 3
Plans for a government scheme which would pay claimants compensation ranging from ¥5.5 million (m) (US$50,000) to ¥13m (US$120,000) depending on their injuries had been proposed by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic and Komeito Parties; the scheme would also be opened to individuals who had not been party to the original lawsuits. On May 19, 2021, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Tamura announced that a reconciliation agreement had been signed.
Commenting on this development, victims lawyer Toshitaka Onodera said:
"Until now, we had a hostile relationship with the country in the trial, but with this agreement, we will cooperate together to help all the victims. I want you to proceed with the agreement in good faith without disappointing our expectations. "
Claimant Kazuo Miyajima, a 91-year-old electrical worker, who signed the agreement on behalf of the plaintiffs, expressed his sorrow at the death of so many of his colleagues over the last 13 years and found himself hard pressed to express his feelings.
Although the money for the compensation would be sourced from a Government fund of ¥3 billion (US$30m), Lawyer Onodera pointed out that the building materials manufacturers had also been found guilty by the Supreme Court and must contribute towards the fund:
Although the legal liability of the manufacturers has been clarified in the previous trials, the fact that they do not comply with the compensation system ignores the social responsibility of the companies. We will pursue them at the court, but I would like the government to proceed with efforts to create a compensation system with the participation of manufacturers. 4
The news of these developments reverberated around Japan and received massive media coverage at home and abroad with articles about the case appearing in the English-language press as well as in Russia, home to the worlds largest asbestos mine.5
Some of the media coverage of the case in Japan.
One can but hope that the Supreme Courts historic ruling and the positive steps taken by the Government are indicative of a commitment to tackle the deadly legacy created by the continued use of asbestos in Japan into the mid-2000s and the widespread contamination which remains.6 Time will tell.
May 20, 2021
1 Editorial: Japan top court asbestos ruling gives hope for widespread compensation. (Mainichi Japan). May 18, 2021.
2 建設アスベスト 国と企業の責任認める 最高裁が初判決 [Construction Asbestos Lawsuit: First decision by Supreme Court recognizing national and corporate responsibility]. May 17, 2021.
3 Suga apologizes over construction workers' asbestos illnesses. May 19, 2021.
4 Construction asbestos proceedings Signing of basic agreement to pay plaintiffs settlement. May 19, 2021.
5 Суд в Японии впервые встал на сторону рабочих строек, пострадавших от контактов с асбестом [Court in Japan for the first time sided with construction workers affected by contact with asbestos]. May 17, 2021.
6 It has been estimated that 2.8 million private buildings in Japan contain asbestos.