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How can I ensure my family isn’t liable for my elderly Japanese wife’s driving mishaps?

by Takashi Ito

Contributing Writer

Reader B wrote to Lifelines about his worries regarding his wife, a keen driver who is about to become an octogenarian:

My Japanese spouse of well over 50 years will celebrate her 80th birthday in a few months. Going to her local sports club for Ritmos dancing four times a week, she is as healthy as a fledgling octogenarian can be.

M also likes driving, and she does so like a 30-year-old. Over the years she has caused a couple of accidents, but managed to have her driver’s license renewed every so often to this very day.

Statistics are providing ample proof that people in old age cause disproportionately more traffic accidents than their juniors. Calling it quits at some point in the not-so-distant future would be the most sensible thing for M to do, but no argument in this world could convince her to put down the keys.

In an accident on May 28 in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, a 90-year-old woman driver ran a red light, killing one pedestrian and injuring four others. Presumably the woman’s insurance and personal assets won’t suffice to cover the massive compensation claims of the plaintiffs and, here in Japan, the next of kin will be held liable.

Question: Is there a way to hedge legally against such a worst-case scenario? In other words, how can I protect my two daughters from having to bear responsibility for casualties and/or injuries caused by their parents?

Your concern touches on one of the most serious issues we face in Japan’s aging society, and no one has found the perfect solution yet. But before answering your questions, let me start by pointing out two misunderstandings I detected in your question.

First, an offender’s next of kin is not liable just by virtue of being the next of kin. Yes, parents or a minor’s guardian are almost always liable for the damages their minor causes to a third person, but beyond that, who is liable in cases involving adults is a matter of intense debate.

A famous Supreme Court ruling on March 1, 2016, dealt with this issue. According to the judgment rendered in the case, a mentally disabled person’s spouse is not liable solely by virtue of being the spouse, even if the two of them live together. Likewise, a mentally disabled person’s child is not liable simply because he or she is the child. A person can be liable only if they are regarded as if having accepted the legal responsibility to supervise the disabled person.

A lot of factors need to be considered here, such as how the two parties interact in daily life (for example, whether or not they are relatives, have a close relationship, or live together), how the other individual manages the mentally disabled person’s assets, the latter’s health condition, the occurrence of problematic behavior, and how the other party supervises and supports the disabled person in their daily life. To sum up, the distribution of liability in this kind of situation is quite complicated and still up for debate.

Second, your worry could be eased by car insurance. There are two kinds of liability insurance for car accidents in Japan: mandatory minimum insurance and voluntary umbrella insurance. The voluntary umbrella insurance can provide unlimited coverage against personal injury and property loss, and this type of policy is the norm in Japan. As long as your spouse has this type of car insurance policy, it would cover the massive compensation claims of plaintiffs.

Incidentally, with this issue becoming such a big issue in Japan right now, the car license system itself is beginning to change. Amendments to the Road Traffic Act took effect on March 12, 2017. The new act requires that people over age 75 take a special cognitive-function test at various points, such as when renewing their driver’s license. As a result of this regime, more elderly people are expected to give up their car licenses, and a special identification card will be given to those who do so voluntarily. The idea is that the card will give holders various benefits, such as taxi-fare and shopping discounts.

The time will come soon for your spouse to renew her car license. It is more troublesome for her to renew it, and more beneficial to give it up, than it has ever been in the past. There is no perfect way to legally hedge for the worst scenario, so the next renewal might be a good time for you and your loved ones to discuss this issue with your wife.

Takashi Ito is an attorney with the Foreign nationals and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving non-Japanese in the Tokyo area (03-5979-2880; www.t-pblo.jp/fiss). FISS lawyers address legal queries received by Lifelines. Send your questions and other comments to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp.