National / Crime & Legal

Japan's Supreme Court dismisses liability of family in death of man with dementia

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed the liability of the family of a 91-year-old man with dementia who was killed by a train after wandering onto railway tracks.

The precedent-setting decision is of great significance in a graying society in which the number of dementia patients is projected to increase significantly.

The “groundbreaking” ruling thoroughly favored the family of the dementia patient, said lawyer Teruhiko Asaoka, who represented the family.

“Families of elderly people have been watching this ruling … as if it were deeply related to their own nursing care,” he said. “The ruling will truly be a relief for those families.”

In its first ruling ever on the liability of families of dementia patients, the Supreme Court overturned a Nagoya High Court ruling of 2014 ordering the man’s wife to pay ¥3.6 million in compensation to Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) for disruption of service.

With this, the family’s eight-year struggle against a major railway company can finally end, said the 65-year-old son of the deceased man.

“We believe the Supreme Court decision today recognizes there was no problem with the fact that my father was out walking, and that our family was not liable for what happened,” he said in a written statement.

According to the ruling, the man, who suffered from advanced dementia, was killed by a JR Tokai train in 2007 when he wandered onto the tracks in Obu, Aichi Prefecture.

Although he was under the care of his wife, who was then 85 years old and also in need of care, and the wife of his older son who lived nearby, the man left their home while his wife was napping.

JR Tokai sued the wife and her older son for ¥7.2 million in 2010, claiming that they had failed to fulfill their obligations to monitor the man’s behavior.

The Nagoya District Court ruled the family liable in 2013 and ordered both the wife and son to pay the full amount demanded by JR Tokai.

But the Nagoya High Court rejected the son’s liability in 2014 and ordered the wife to pay half the amount.

Both JR Tokai and the family appealed to the Supreme Court.

“While fully acknowledging that there were regrettable reasons for what happened, we asked for the court’s decision because there was interference to our railway services and costs were involved,” JR Tokai said in a statement Tuesday. “We accept this ruling sincerely.”

According to the transport ministry, there were 758 cases of train accidents and 287 related deaths in fiscal 2014. Among them, 28 cases involved dementia patients, 22 of whom were killed, according to Kyodo News.

Tuesday’s ruling may impact elderly care in the country, making home care of dementia patients a more viable option for families. The number of such patients is expected to rise amid a shortage of nursing care workers.

The health ministry estimates the number of dementia patients in the nation will reach 7 million by 2025, when nearly 1 in 5 people will be 65 years or older.

The ministry projects that 2.53 million nursing care workers will be needed by the same year, but the number is expected to remain at 2.15 million, a shortage of nearly 380,000.

Kunio Takami, a director of the Alzheimer’s Association Japan, a group to support dementia patients and families, said he was “just happy” after hearing the ruling.

“We have argued about the hardship experienced by families of dementia patients and people who need care. I believe our voices were finally heard by the judges,” Takami said.

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