FUKUOKA – A high court on Monday overturned a lower-court ruling and denied damages to chronic hepatitis B sufferers who contracted the illness in a state-run vaccination program and had relapses.
The focus of the trial at the Fukuoka High Court had been on when the 20-year countdown for claims under the Civil Code begins, as the two male plaintiffs sued the state more than 20 years after they first developed symptoms.
The Fukuoka District Court in 2017 ordered the state to pay ¥12.5 million in damages to each of the men, deeming their relapses in 2004 and 2008 “new damage” the plaintiffs suffered and that they should, therefore, receive compensation.
But the high court ruled in favor of the state, which claimed the count should start from the time when they first had symptoms.
Presiding Judge Noriyuki Yamanouchi said the two men’s relapses could not be regarded as causing damage different from earlier symptoms because the root cause was the same illness that they had initially contracted.
“It’s quite a ruthless judgement and regrettable, but we won’t give up and will continue to fight,” one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs said at a news conference, adding that they will appeal to the Supreme Court.
Like the two men, about 90 plaintiffs have filed suits against the state in 13 district courts across Japan over 20 years after their first symptoms appeared, the lawyers said.
Under a special law that took effect in 2012, people suffering from chronic hepatitis receive a one-off benefit of between ¥500,000 and ¥36 million depending on their symptoms — with the latter figure available in the most serious cases — if they file a lawsuit against the state and a recognized link between the vaccination and the illness can be established.
Some of those suffering from chronic hepatitis are eligible to receive ¥12.5 million, but the payments are reduced to ¥3 million or ¥1.5 million if they do not take legal action within 20 years of developing symptoms.
Hepatitis B, which is caused by a virus transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person, puts people at high risk of death from cirrhosis and liver cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
At least 400,000 people in Japan are believed to have been infected with the hepatitis B virus due to lax needle-use practices during the country’s group vaccination program between 1948 and 1988.
However, as of the end of February, only about 46,000 people had been recognized as eligible to receive a payment based on the special law.