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A Supreme Court ruling and the problems of liability in graying Japan

The area near where a dementia patient was fatally hit by a train in 2007 is seen in Obu, Aichi Prefecture, on March 1, 2016. He entered the train tracks through an unlocked gate in the fence. (Mainichi)

The Supreme Court ruled on March 1 that the family of a dementia sufferer struck and killed by a train is not responsible for compensating operator Central Japan Railway Co. for service delays caused by the accident. The decision highlights how difficult it is to draw a clear line between who is liable for incidents involving dementia patients, and who is not.

In handing down the first-ever ruling, the top court's Third Petty Bench stated that those who supervise people with dementia can only be held responsible in a limited way for damages stemming from their charges, stating, "There are cases in which people are not responsible for supervising (dementia patients)."

The ruling is in line with the reality of Japan's rapidly graying society. A group of families of those with dementia welcomed the top court ruling, saying, "This is an epoch-making decision that matches the reality of elderly care." At the same time, the issue of how damages caused to third parties by dementia patients should be redressed remains unresolved.

The biggest issue in the trial was whether the dementia patient's wife and eldest son should, under the Civil Code, be regarded as legally responsible for supervising the man and pay compensation on his behalf for the service delays caused by the accident. It was the first-ever ruling by the top court on a family's responsibility for supervising a relative with dementia who caused an accident. The ruling drew attention as it would likely affect subsequent court decisions on similar accidents, which are expected to grow more frequent in the future as Japan's society ages.

The ruling came against the backdrop of changing social environments surrounding the elderly. Dementia patients' legally acceptable activities had been strictly limited in the past. But in step with the aging population, systems for supporting the elderly began to be put in place, such as adult guardianship and the nursing-care insurance system in 2000. Relevant laws have been revised in such a way as to relieve partners and other relations of responsibility for damages inflicted on third parties by people such as the mentally disabled.

In light of such developments, the top court's Third Petty Bench said the dementia patient's wife cannot be the legally defined party responsible for supervising him simply because she was his partner or adult guardian at the time of the accident in 2007, stating, "There is no basis for recognizing the wife as a person responsible for supervision." The Nagoya High Court had recognized that the wife was liable for supervising her husband, on the grounds that married couples are obliged to help each other under the Civil Code.

Meanwhile, the top court suggested that there are cases in which those who are partners or guardians of dementia patients are responsible in a limited way for supervising them, stating, "If there are special circumstances in which they are believed to have undertaken (the duty of supervision) on their own, they could be held responsible as 'those who are effectively liable for supervision.'"

The court then said decisions should be made based on objective circumstances, such as: 1) The circumstances of the guardian's own life, including physical and mental condition; 2) whether they have kinship ties with the dementia sufferer and how close that relationship is; 3) whether they live with the patient and how often they meet daily; 4) whether they are involved in managing the patient's finances; 5) whether the patient has any behavioral problems, and the nature of those problems; 6) the conditions of nursing care.

Although there are no specific examples, there will likely be court rulings in the future that reject demands for compensation in cases of "elder-to-elder nursing care," stating that they are not responsible for supervising the patient. Nonetheless, the top court's petty bench did not specify criteria for and under what circumstances those recognized as liable for supervising a dementia sufferer can avoid responsibility for damages.

There are other issues unresolved. For example, the intent of the relevant Civil Code clause stipulating that responsible supervisors are liable for any damage caused by their charges is aimed at redressing the victims. In the latest ruling, it was a railway company that filed the lawsuit. However, in cases of damage to an individual, it could be argued that the victim should not be compelled to accept a similar decision.

Two of the five justices ruling on the 2007 case stated that the eldest son was effectively the person responsible for supervising his father. But they ultimately concluded in favor of the dementia patient's family along with the three other justices, ruling that the family members fulfilled their responsibility. Court judges could have a heated debate over whether it's fair for no one to take responsibility in such situations.

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