Tunnel workers get 69 million yen

State failed to protect them from lung damage: court

The Tokyo District Court ordered the government Friday to pay 69.3 million yen in compensation to victims of pneumoconiosis who worked on tunnel projects ordered mainly by the state.

The court ruled that the state’s failure to exert its regulatory authority in connection with the disease was illegal and ordered the state to pay between 550,000 yen and 2.2 million yen each to 44 of the plaintiffs, for total damages of 69.3 million yen.

The 49 plaintiffs, who hailed from 19 prefectures, were seeking damages of 3.3 million yen per person, or 161.7 million yen. The court found the remaining five ineligible for compensation.

The Tokyo ruling is the first in connection with 11 pneumoconiosis- and black lung-related lawsuits filed by about 960 plaintiffs across Japan.

The plaintiffs at the Tokyo court comprise former tunnel workers aged 57 to 78 who were stricken by pneumoconiosis and the next of kin of sufferers who have died. They filed the suit in November 2002.

Before filing the suit, the plaintiffs filed a separate lawsuit against general contractors and reached an out-of-court settlement. But the plaintiffs argue that diseases stemming from inhalation of dangerous particulate matter will not be eliminated unless the state acknowledges its responsibility.

Many of the plaintiffs went from one job to another, working tunnel sites on railroads, highways and dams as Japan rushed to modernize itself and accelerated economic growth, culminating in the bubble economy.

The plaintiffs later lost their jobs after developing the disease or developed it after retiring.

The plaintiffs have said the government failed to use its authority to make laws, regulate and supervise to prevent the spread of pneumoconiosis, and violated its obligation to ensure safety as the party that ordered the projects.

The state argued it had no obligation to introduce laws and so was not responsible for not using its supervising authority. It said it had no safety obligation because no supervisory relationship existed between the state and the workers hired by general contractors.

The state then argued that the damages have been paid through the plaintiffs’ settlements with the general contractors, and that the statute of limitations on their right to claim compensation has expired.

The plaintiffs argued the damages were not covered by the settlements, and that the state was abusing its right by citing the statute of limitations on their compensation claim.

In April 2004, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling ordering the government and a mining company to compensate former coal miners who contracted anthracosis in the Chikuho region of Fukuoka Prefecture, saying the state failed to issue safety regulations.

Black lung, or anthracosis, is an occupational lung disease contracted by prolonged inhalation of coal dust, which hardens and eventually kills lung cells. Some people develop the disease 10 or more years after initial exposure.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, about 38,000 people in Japan needed treatment for anthracosis and pneumoconiosis between 1978 and 2004, with tunnel workers accounting for about 9,000 of them.