• Kyodo

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A high court scrapped on Tuesday a lower court ruling and acquitted an assistant nurse over a 2013 incident in which an 85-year-old woman at a care home in central Japan died after eating a doughnut she was given.

The Tokyo High Court found 60-year-old Kesae Yamaguchi not guilty of negligence, saying her provision of a doughnut as a snack did not violate a duty of care under the Penal Code.

In March last year, the Matsumoto chapter of the Nagano District Court found Yamaguchi guilty of negligence resulting in death after recognizing she was responsible for checking what food the woman was given, as her snack had been designated as jelly. The court fined her ¥200,000 ($1,894).

The case has attracted public attention as it is rare for individuals, rather than facility operators, to be criminally charged over faulty care.

The woman at the care home in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture, ate a doughnut provided as a snack on Dec. 12, 2013, and died about a month later due to brain damage from lack of oxygen.

The district court said the woman choked on the doughnut and died, but Yamaguchi’s defense team argued the cause of death was a stroke and she did not bear responsibility for checking what the woman ate.

The high court ruling said the woman had eaten doughnuts at the care home and the risk of her suffocating was low. It also said only caregivers at the facility shared information that jelly should be given as a snack and the assistant nurse did not know it.

The defense team praised what it called a “landmark” ruling, saying the court fully accepted its arguments and that it would help “quell the concerns of those working in nursing care.”

Hideo Kijima, chief of the defense team, said nursing establishments had been shaken since Yamaguchi was found guilty in the first ruling last March, with some stopping providing snacks at care homes.

“Care workers’ wish to offer a good service of care must win more respect,” Kijima said in a meeting after Tuesday’s ruling.

Speaking at the meeting, a tearful Yamaguchi expressed gratitude to her supporters, saying “Thank you for supporting me these 6½ long years.”

Yoko Miyazawa, a 57-year-old employee of a medical-related organization who had supported Yamaguchi since the start of her trial, was also relieved.

“I’ve been saying all this time how ridiculous it is that something that could happen to anyone at any nursing home could become a criminal case,” she said. “Our voices finally reached the judiciary.”

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