• Kyodo

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The Kumamoto District Court ordered the state Thursday to pay a combined 260 million yen in compensation to workers who contracted pneumoconiosis on tunnel construction projects mainly ordered by the state, and to relatives of deceased workers.

The court ruled that the state is responsible for the disease, saying it was “extremely irrational” that the government did not exert authority to take preventive action.

The ruling follows one delivered July 7 by the Tokyo District Court, which ordered the government to pay 69.3 million yen in compensation to 49 victims of pneumoconiosis from 19 prefectures.

In the Kumamoto case, 156 plaintiffs from Kyushu’s seven prefectures, Okinawa and Yamaguchi Prefecture, sought 3.3 million yen each in compensation, saying the state breached its obligation to ensure safety.

Including the Tokyo and Kumamoto cases, 11 similar suits over lung disease have been filed by about 960 plaintiffs across the country. Decisions have yet to be handed down in the nine other suits.

The plaintiffs at the Kumamoto court comprise former tunnel construction workers who suffer pneumoconiosis and relatives of 22 workers who have died. They filed the suit in July 2003.

About half of the plaintiffs had filed a separate damages suit against construction companies. Last February, they reached an out-of-court settlement that calls for paying amounts ranging from 2.25 million yen to 22 million yen per patient.

Many of the plaintiffs worked on tunnel sites for railroads, highways and dams during the years of high economic growth.

The plaintiffs lost their jobs after developing the disease, or developed the disease after retirement.

The plaintiffs said the government failed to introduce laws, as well as to regulate and supervise working conditions, to prevent pneumoconiosis, and breached its obligation to ensure safety as the party that ordered the construction projects.

The state claimed it had no obligation to introduce laws, and therefore could not be held responsible for not using its supervisory authority. It also reckoned it had no safety obligation because no supervisory relationship existed between the state and the workers hired by contractors.

In April 2004, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling ordering the government and a mining company to compensate former coal miners who contracted anthracosis, or black lung disease, in the Chikuho region of Fukuoka Prefecture, saying the state failed to take the initiative to introduce safety regulations.

Pneumoconiosis and anthracosis are occupational diseases usually contracted by prolonged breathing of dust.

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