Asthmatics win state air-pollution suit

Seven asthmatics won almost 80 million yen from the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. on Tuesday as compensation for suffering caused by air pollution.

The Tokyo District Court ordered the three bodies to pay out a total of 79.2 million yen to the plaintiffs, who all live within 50 meters of trunk roads and expressways in the nation’s capital.

The legal action was brought by 99 plaintiffs who had sought 2.2 billion yen in damages from the governmental bodies, the highway authority and seven automobile manufacturers, as well as a court order to halt the emission of harmful substances into the air.

It was Japan’s first air pollution lawsuit to name automakers as defendants, but the court cleared the automobile makers of any responsibility. The plaintiffs remain unhappy with this portion of the ruling and are poised to appeal.

It also said the remaining 92 plaintiffs failed to prove a direct link between air pollution and their ailments and dismissed their cases.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ demand for an injunction to halt emissions of suspended particulate matter and nitrogen oxide — harmful substances contained in exhaust fumes — ruling that there is no dependable evidence to link emissions with respiratory ailments over a broad geographical area.

The latest ruling marks the fifth time that the central government has been held responsible for illnesses caused by air pollution along state roads, after similar rulings handed down in Kawasaki, Nagoya, Osaka and Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

In handing down the sentence, Judge Toshifumi Takahashi said the automakers could have foreseen the health risks posed by their diesel vehicles from as far back as 1973, when the government set environmental standards for pollutants. Automakers have a social responsibility to make efforts to reduce emissions of hazardous material, he said.

Nevertheless, the manufacturers had no control over their vehicles after their sale, and as it is difficult to meet environmental standards by regulating cars on an individual basis, entities such as the state should take steps to reduce traffic, Takahashi said, ruling that the automakers “cannot be deemed negligent” in the matter.

One of the awardees, a 17-year-old girl living in Setagaya Ward, is not certified by the government under a redress system that was abolished in 1988 as suffering from pollution-related health problems.

Tuesday’s ruling was the first time a Japanese court has acted in favor of noncertified sufferers. Observers believe this may pave the way for other unrecognized sufferers to receive future redress.

“The ruling was a very tough one for the government,” Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Chikage Ogi said in a statement. “I would like to compile better environmental measures for roads and traffic as swiftly as possible.”

Meanwhile, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will not appeal.

“While I am not totally satisfied with the ruling, it is the administration’s responsibility to strengthen regulations on emissions and help those affected,” he said. “I don’t think we should prolong the trial without valid reasons.”

Nearly 1,500 supporters — many wearing blue sashes symbolizing clean skies — broke into applause outside the district court building when lawyers hoisted a sign indicating the plaintiffs had won compensation.

Junji Nishi, 69, who heads the plaintiffs’ group, said he was disappointed by the leniency shown toward the automakers.

“I am very dissatisfied that automakers were not found socially responsible and that all of central Tokyo was not recognized to be polluted,” he said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers said they plan to pursue the case against diesel-powered auto manufacturers by using the court’s ruling that pollution-induced health risks were foreseeable.

Meanwhile, the seven automakers named in the lawsuit — Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Nissan Diesel Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Hino Motors Ltd., Isuzu Motors Ltd. and Mazda Motor Corp. — said they felt the ruling was fair. They pledged to continue striving to make eco-friendly vehicles.

A total of 518 Tokyo residents have joined the suit against the state, metropolitan government, the highway operator and seven automakers, demanding compensation for asthma and respiratory illnesses. The case, initially filed in 1996, is viewed as a litmus test for three similar suits pending against the same defendants, particularly as it could pave the way for more aggressive rulings.

In a meeting with Environment Ministry officials later in the day, the plaintiffs and their supporters demanded that the government come up with new measures to protect citizens and compensate those plagued by air pollution-related health problems.

“The Environment Ministry needs to quit running,” said Kimio Moriwaki of the Center for the Redevelopment of Pollution-damaged Areas in Japan. “The state has lost five times. I think it is time for it to set up a redress system.”

Officials told the group that they need to analyze the ruling and consult with other ministries before commenting in detail.

“The state, not just the Environment Ministry, was sued,” said Hirotaka Tachikawa, deputy director of the Environmental Management Bureau’s General Affairs Division. “We need to discuss policy with other ministries and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to determine what steps we can take.”