Fukushima court rules against Tepco in suicide case

Kyodo, Reuters

The Fukushima District Court ruled Tuesday that Tokyo Electric Power Co. was responsible for a woman’s suicide following the March 2011 nuclear disaster, ordering the utility to pay ¥49 million in damages in a landmark ruling that could set a precedent for other claims against the utility.

It was the first ruling on a lawsuit in which compensation has been sought over a suicide linked to the disaster that created serious radiation contamination. Some 125,000 Fukushima residents continue to live as evacuees.

Mikio Watanabe’s civil suit claimed that the plant operator was to blame for the July 2011 death of his 58-year-old wife, Hamako, who doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire after falling into deep depression.

The district court in Fukushima ruled in favor of Watanabe, a court official told reporters.

The husband of the woman and three other relatives had filed the lawsuit with the district court, requesting about ¥91 million in compensation.

In handing down the ruling, Presiding Judge Naoyuki Shiomi said Watanabe’s mental anguish was “huge,” citing the despair she felt in the face of an uncertain future as an evacuee.

Tepco said it will study the content of the ruling and respond to it “sincerely.”

The court decision is the latest blow for the utility, which was bailed out with taxpayer funds in 2012 and expects to spend more than $48 billion in compensation alone for the nuclear disaster.

Tepco has settled a number of suicide-related claims through a government dispute-resolution system, but has declined to say how many or give details on how much it has paid.

According to the written indictment, the area in the town of Kawamata where Watanabe’s home stands was designated as an evacuation zone on April 22, 2011, about a month after the crisis was triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region.

The home was located about 40 km away from the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Watanabe and other family members evacuated to an apartment in the city of Fukushima in June, but she burned herself to death with gasoline on July 1 when she temporarily returned to her home.

The plaintiffs said Watanabe’s mental state deteriorated because she was not able to foresee when she could return home and the chicken farm where the couple was working closed in June.

Tepco has admitted the nuclear accident had placed a severe psychological burden on Watanabe. But the utility also noted that other factors could have affected her, citing that she had trouble sleeping before the accident and was on medication.

After the ruling, Mikio Watanabe said he was “very happy” that the court showed understanding of the family’s struggle.

An attorney for the plaintiffs called the ruling a “full victory” and added, “This is going to be extremely significant for future nuclear compensation issues.”

Tepco had previously agreed to pay damages to the bereaved family of a farmer who committed suicide at age 64 on March 24, 2011, through an out-of-court settlement.