In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court said Thursday the government acted illegally in failing to mandate ventilation to protect workers at asbestos mills, holding the state liable for ¥330 million in compensation.
It is the first time the top court has indicted the state for asbestos-linked health problems. The ruling is likely to influence similar lawsuits in the future.
It also ends an eight-year struggle for justice by several dozen sufferers from Osaka Prefecture who uncovered divisions between different layers of the judiciary in assessing the state’s culpability.
The government’s failure to mandate the installation of air ventilation in places where laborers handled asbestos was “extremely unreasonable” and “illegal,” said Presiding Justice Yu Shiraki.
Outside the court, plaintiffs and their supporters erupted in joy when they heard the news.
“This is a huge step forward,” one man said through a megaphone. “I’m sure this will give ammunition to future anti-asbestos movements like ours.”
The court rejected an appeal by the state against an earlier high court ruling that upheld the plaintiffs’ cause.
Thursday’s ruling was handed down in a combined response to two litigations filed by 89 former plant workers and their families in the city of Sennan, Osaka Prefecture, who say they suffered lung cancer and other maladies linked to asbestos inhalation.
The court held Thursday that 54 of the plaintiffs were eligible for redress, but more are expected to be compensated in the future.
The plaintiffs argued that the state’s failure to protect plant workers continued long after the material’s toxicity was medically well-established in Japan in the late 1950s. It was not until 1971 that the state mandated the ventilator installation in asbestos-linked workplaces.
The Supreme Court, however, dismissed other accusations against the state, ruling that it had acted sufficiently swiftly in imposing other safety measures, namely lowering asbestos to safe levels in the workplace and requiring workers to wear asbestos dust masks.
This meant some of the plaintiffs were ineligible for compensation. Miyoko Sato was one of them.
“To be perfectly honest, yes, I’m personally disappointed,” she told reporters after the ruling. “But I’m really happy that other people won this fight.”
The government argued it ramped up steps against the threat from asbestos at a pace it saw fit, rejecting culpability.
The plaintiffs comprised two groups. The Osaka District Court ruled in favor of both Group 1 and Group 2, in 2010 and 2012, respectively, acknowledging that the state illegally neglected to mandate ventilation in a timely manner. The ruling said the state should pay compensation.
The Osaka High Court was less consistent. In 2011, it held the state’s handling of ventilator requirements didn’t constitute an illegality. In 2013, it ruled that the order to mandate ventilator installments came too late.