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The Supreme Court overturned on Monday a high court ruling in 2019 that denied damages to hepatitis B patients who have relapsed citing the expiration of the 20-year eligibility period.

The top court's Second Petty Bench unanimously ruled that the 20-year countdown for claims began when the two plaintiffs had relapses, sending the case back to Fukuoka High Court for damages to be calculated on that basis.

Symptoms the plaintiffs suffered after the relapses began were "peculiar," and medical science has not yet identified when such symptoms may occur, the petty bench said.

The relapses caused damage different in quality from that when they first developed symptoms, and the count should thus begin when the two had relapses, the ruling said.

Presiding Judge Mamoru Miura gave an additional opinion requesting the government to fulfill its responsibility appropriately to resolve the issue entirely.

The high court had ruled in favor of the government, saying that the eligibility period should start from the time when they first developed symptoms.

The plaintiffs are both men in their 60s who were infected with the hepatitis B virus through group vaccinations during their childhood.

They developed chronic hepatitis more than 20 years ago, but their conditions improved temporarily. The two filed their suits after the relapses began.

Under the state's relief program for such hepatitis B patients, chronic hepatitis sufferers can get ¥12.5 million in compensation through a lawsuit against the state. The amount is reduced to ¥1.5 million to ¥3 million, however, if they do not file the lawsuit within 20 years of developing symptoms.

In December 2017, Fukuoka District Court ordered the government to pay ¥12.5 million in damages to each of the two plaintiffs, meeting their demands in full, saying that the eligibility period should be counted from the time when the hepatitis relapsed.

When they had relapses, the plaintiffs suffered "new damages that were qualitatively different" from their earlier symptoms, as relapses pose higher risks of cirrhosis and liver cancer, the ruling said.

But in April 2019, Fukuoka High Court reversed the district court ruling, concluding that the count should start at the time when they first developed symptoms.

The latest ruling by the Supreme Court might work favorably for 111 plaintiffs in similar litigations with the government at 15 district courts and two high courts across the country.

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