Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologized on Tuesday after the nation’s top court found the state to have been negligent in its duty to protect construction workers from contracting lung cancer and other illnesses linked to asbestos.
Meeting plaintiffs in four suits on which the Supreme Court ruled the previous day, Suga said at the Prime Minister’s Office that the government “sincerely reflects” on its past conduct.
“I offer my apologies in representing the government,” Suga said, adding, “In view of the Supreme Court ruling, we would like to reach a basic agreement toward a swift settlement while paying full respect to your opinions.”
The top court ruled that the state should have warned of the dangers of asbestos by October 1975 through labels on construction materials or at construction sites and should have instructed workers to wear dust-protective masks.
The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito has already decided to propose that the government pay compensation ranging from ¥5.5 million to ¥13 million to each victim exposed to asbestos.
The proposal also includes creating a system to provide the same level of compensation to victims who have not filed lawsuits.
“It is impossible to imagine the extensive burden and the suffering of those who sustained damage to their health and those who lost their loved ones, and I am at a loss for words,” said Suga.
Haruko Osaka, 77, who lost her husband and a son said, “I wish from the bottom of my heart there is a plan to help those that suffered.”
Kiyo Ozono, 76, who lost her husband, told reporters after the meeting that she still hasn’t come to terms with her loss. “It has been 13 years of frustration and despair,” she said. “I want the government to urge companies (to pay compensation) so we can settle down on this as soon as possible.”
Asbestos was widely used for insulation, fire protection and sound absorption in buildings, although its use was gradually regulated after it was found that inhaling asbestos could cause lung cancer and other diseases.
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of around 500 plaintiffs in the four suits filed with district courts in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Kyoto.
The top court said manufacturers of construction materials containing asbestos were also responsible to some extent.
In the ruling, presiding Judge Takuya Miyama said “it significantly lacks rationality” that the state did not exercise its authority to regulate the use of asbestos.
Since 2008, a number of damages suits, including the four on Monday, have been filed nationwide related to asbestos exposure at construction sites, with a total of 1,200 plaintiffs as of April this year, according to the lawyers involved. The plaintiffs include bereaved family members of workers exposed to asbestos.
The four suits were examined by the top court after high court rulings differed in assigning responsibility to the state and manufacturers.
The top court had previously ordered the state and manufacturers to pay compensation to the victims but had not provided detailed reasoning for awarding damages.
The plaintiffs argued that state regulations for asbestos, which did not require workers to wear protective masks, were insufficient. They also said manufacturers failed to properly indicate the dangers of the material.
A law to provide financial support to people suffering from asbestos-linked diseases took effect in Japan in 2006.
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