Defeat of Japanese Asbestos Test Case
On May 25, 2012, the Yokohoma District Court handed down a ruling which supported Government claims that its asbestos regulations were not unreasonable from the standpoint of knowledge at theat time.1 The 2.9 billion yen lawsuit had been brought on behalf of 87 construction workers, including carpenters and plumbers, who had contracted asbestos-related diseases since 1960; most of the claimants were self-employed workers. The defendants in this case included the Ministries of Labour and Construction of the Japanese Government, alleged to have been negligent in failing to adopt asbestos regulations and guidelines to protect at-risk workers, and 44 companies which had manufactured asbestos-containing building products. The plaintiffs sought compensation from the government under Article 1 of the State Redress Act and from the manufacturers under Article 719 of the Civil Code and under Article 3 of the Product Liability Act.
Although asbestos cases in Japan have been won for other categories of victims, the situation regarding construction workers provides difficult challenges not least of which is the fact that it is very difficult to pinpoint the specific site at which the exposure to asbestos occurred. In Japan, as elsewhere, former construction workers are amongst the groups at highest risk of contracting an occupationally-caused asbestos-related disease. For both these reasons, this case was regarded as an important test case. Reflecting the high public profile of this litigation, hundreds of asbestos victims, family members, supporters, trade unionists and campaigners were present at the court on Friday to hear the verdict.
While the Yokohoma judgment is a setback, the decision has already been made to appeal this verdict to a higher court.
Other asbestos lawsuits for construction workers are pending at district courts in Sapporo, Tokyo, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Osaka and Fukuoka. A decision is expected from the Tokyo District Court in September in a case regarding the asbestos deaths of 178 construction workers; damages of 6.6 bn yen are being sought from the Government of Japan and 46 manufacturers of building products.2
May 27, 2012
1 Court rejects damages suit by construction workers on asbestos exposure. May 26, 2012
2 Asbestos victims file 6.6 billion yen class action lawsuit in Tokyo. May 17, 2008.