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Family of dementia patient who died in train accident relieved at top court ruling

Lawyer Teruhiko Asaoka, left, representing the family of a dementia patient killed by a train, speaks at a news conference after a Supreme Court ruling on the case, at the legal reporters' club in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on March 1, 2016. (Mainichi)

Relatives of a dementia patient who was hit and killed by a train expressed relief after a March 1 Supreme Court ruling that the family was not responsible for losses incurred by Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) due to the accident.

At a post-ruling news conference, lawyer for the family Teruhiko Asaoka said, "(The Supreme Court ruled) that a person is not responsible for supervising someone just because they are providing care for them. It is a great, revolutionary decision."

JR Central released a comment saying, "We are well aware there are sympathetic circumstances, but train services were interrupted and costs were incurred in preparing alternative transport, and this is why we sought a ruling from the courts," adding, "We will accept the Supreme Court's ruling sincerely."

A previous Nagoya High Court ruling had found the dementia patient's wife responsible for supervising him and therefor liable for JR Central costs related to the train delay, while the original lower court ruling had found both the wife and the patient's son liable.

These decisions had alarmed the Alzheimer's Association Japan, which has repeatedly insisted that the costs incurred on JR Central must not be ruled as the family's responsibility. At a March 1 news conference, association President Kunio Takami declared, "We are happy, it's a good ruling, and that says it all. Families cannot completely prevent (members with dementia) from heading out on their own, and we received understanding from the judges about (the realities of) dementia. I want to express my respect to the family for fighting all the way to the Supreme Court."

The first and second rulings had sent shockwaves through families across Japan caring for members with dementia. The 65-year-old son of the man hit by the train was acutely aware that the trial was about more than just his family, saying, "I'm relieved to have the burden (of the trial) off of me. I think my father ('s spirit) is pleased with the ruling, too."

The train accident occurred on the evening of Dec. 7, 2007, when the 91-year-old man wandered away from his home in Obu, Aichi Prefecture, while his wife, now 93, was dozing. Though he didn't have money, he is thought to have boarded a train at Obu Station and gotten off at the next station, Kyowa Station, where he walked onto the tracks and was subsequently hit and killed by a train.

On a five-level scale of necessity of care, the man rated a "4," the second most serious level. While the family told JR Central that the man had dementia and the incident was not intentional, JR Central argued that the family had a responsibility to supervise the man and sued for around 7.2 million yen in damages. During the case, the wife's land was temporarily frozen as an asset.

Over the eight years since the incident, the man's son says, "We were thrown to and fro by the strength of JR Central. It was very hard. It was a battle between a large company and (a few) individuals."

The Nagoya High Court decision ruling the man's wife had supervisory responsibility -- and therefor liability -- was based on a section of the Civil Code stating that married couples must help each. The Supreme Court overturned this reasoning, saying, "Just because two people are married doesn't mean they have supervisory responsibility for one other."

However, the Supreme Court also ruled that "in special cases, families can be held liable for damages."

The son says, "Our family was ruled as not having supervisory responsibility, but there are a variety of ways in which families care for their loved ones, so I still have some worry" that other families might be held liable.

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