OSAKA — The Osaka High Court on Friday ordered the central and Kumamoto Prefectural governments and a chemical company to pay 320 million yen in damages to people recognized as suffering from Minamata disease and the families of victims who have died.
The court overturned a district court ruling that ordered Chisso Corp. to pay 276 million yen in damages to 42 of the claimants and cleared the governments of liabilities for not preventing the outbreak and spread of the mercury pollution that caused the disease.
In rejecting the 1994 Osaka District Court ruling, Judge Takaaki Okabe said the central and prefectural governments “violated the law by not implementing measures under the Water Quality Conservation Law and other regulations, therefore, they are required to compensate the victims.”
Minamata disease paralyzes the central nervous system. It killed hundreds of people, disabled thousands and produced birth defects in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in the 1950s and 1960s.
Investigations proved that mercury compounds dumped into Minamata Bay by Chisso were the source of the poisoning.
Friday’s ruling came some 19 years after the suit was filed in 1982 and was the first on the poisoning case to be made by a high court. Thirty-eight people claiming to be suffering from the disease as well as the families of 20 Minamata fatalities were seeking a total of 1.9 billion yen in damages from the governments and Tokyo-based Chisso. Of the 58, 45 were granted compensation from the three defendants, six were given compensation only from Chisso and seven others were dismissed.
They argued that the two governments failed to take appropriate actions to curb the poisoning and disease even though they were aware of mercury pollution.
The governments should have stopped sales of contaminated seafood and ordered Chisso to halt discharging contaminated water into the fishing community’s port based on the water conservation law and Food Sanitation Law, they said.
The central and Kumamoto governments had said they could not take such measures as they were not able to specify substances causing the pollution at that time.
Commenting on the ruling, some plaintiffs said they appreciate that the responsibility of the central and local governments was recognized.
“But it took us as long as 19 years, and the amount of compensation is so small. . . . I cannot tell myself for sure that we won,” one said.
Kumamoto Gov. Yoshiko Shiotani said she is sorry the prefecture’s claims were not recognized by the court. and noted the prefectural government will consult with the state on whether to appeal the ruling.
Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said the ruling was very severe for the state as its claims were rejected.
She pledged to further promote efforts to help victims.
The disease was first reported in Minamata in 1956 and later in Niigata Prefecture. It became one of Japan’s worst cases of pollution-caused disease.
About 19,000 patients across Japan applied for state recognition that they suffer from the disease, but only 3,000 have been officially recognized by the government as Minamata sufferers.
There have been six district court rulings on the disease. The number of judgments that recognized government responsibility for the disease vs those that did not is level at three each.
Since the 1995 Cabinet of then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama decided to pay a lump sum compensation payment of 2.6 million yen each to those not officially recognized as Minamata patients, many of appeals by the victims were withdrawn. However, the court process continued in Osaka to clarify the liability of the governments.
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