The Yokohama District Court on Monday ordered the government to pay 231 million yen to nine workers and the relatives of three deceased employees sickened by prolonged exposure to asbestos at a U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka.
Presiding Judge Yukio Suyama said that while the base did not take appropriate countermeasures against asbestos, the Japanese government, which employed the plaintiffs, had not thoroughly checked the U.S. side’s security measures.
The plaintiffs had sought a combined 313.5 million yen in damages. The ruling dictates that each of the plaintiffs will be awarded between 14 million yen and 25 million yen.
This is the first court ruling on a damages suit involving the development of pneumoconiosis at a U.S. military facility in Japan.
The case revolved around the issue of who should be held responsible for securing the safety of employees who have been hired by the government but work for the U.S. military.
Takeshi Furukawa, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, hailed the ruling as a landmark decision that clarifies the government’s responsibility over matters concerning employees at U.S. bases.
The employees, who worked between 16 and 43 years at a factory repairing U.S. ships, came into contact with asbestos used as a heat insulator and fire retardant.
Although the danger of asbestos has been widely known since before World War II, the U.S. base did not take appropriate action until around 1980 to prevent its employees from developing pneumoconiosis, the judge said.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government failed in its duty — specified under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement — to examine safety measures adopted at the bases and press for necessary action, he said.
A 1960 Japanese law mandates health checkups for workers exposed to the dangers of asbestos.
While the right to claim compensation had expired for three of the plaintiffs, the court ordered the government to compensate all the plaintiffs, saying, “It would not be fair if the government is exempted from compensation payments.”
An additional 22 former employees filed a similar suit in May seeking some 490 million yen in compensation from the government.
“I am so happy,” said 70-year-old plaintiff Hiroyumi Ochiai. “I hope to continue my efforts to eradicate pneumoconiosis.”
The 73-year-old widow of another plaintiff who died during the court battle had mixed feelings.
“I am glad that we won the suit, but my husband will not return,” she said.