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TEPCO in court fight vs. family of dementia patient missing in Fukushima nuke crisis

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has declared at the Tokyo District Court it has no responsibility to pay compensation to the family of a dementia patient who went missing during the opening days of the crisis at the utility's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

    TEPCO has generally admitted responsibility for the deaths of hospital patients during the evacuation of the areas around the nuclear plant in March 2011. However, in the case of the woman, who went missing at the age of 88, the utility has stressed that it "cannot recognize that the nuclear accident led to the disappearance." The family insists that the woman would not have gone missing if the nuclear accident had not occurred. A ruling is expected on Aug. 10.

    According to the family's suit and other sources, the missing woman is originally from the former town of Odaka (now part of the city of Minamisoma), Fukushima Prefecture, and was admitted to Futaba Hospital in the prefectural town of Okuma after being diagnosed with dementia in 2006.

    In-patients at Futaba Hospital were evacuated by March 16, 2011 following the nuclear accident five days before, but the woman could not be found. Staff returned to the hospital briefly in April when the exclusion zone around the plant was opened for temporary visits, and confirmed four patients had died in the facility. However, the missing woman was not among them.

    Based on a statement submitted by the woman's family, the Soma branch of the Fukushima Family Court declared that she had "left the hospital alone after the earthquake, ended up wandering through a virtually uninhabited landscape, and encountered deadly dangers." The court ruled she had disappeared, and was legally dead. The family filed a suit against TEPCO in February 2014 demanding 44 million yen in compensation.

    In court, TEPCO has asserted that the woman likely "wandered out of the hospital due to the earthquake itself," not the nuclear crisis. The utility pointed out that the electronic locks in the hospital wing where the woman was living all opened right after the quake, allowing her to wander away. However, attorney for the plaintiffs Fumio Shinkai responded, "The town of Okuma was vacated and a search could not be conducted because of the (nuclear) accident. It's impossible to say that the accident had nothing to do with the woman's disappearance."

    Shinkai also represents six other families pursuing lawsuits against TEPCO over the deaths of family members at Futaba Hospital. The utility has broadly recognized it has a responsibility to pay compensation for these deaths, but is disputing the amounts.

    According to the 71-year-old niece of the missing dementia patient, the woman moved to Tokyo when she was young to work as a dressmaker, and returned to her hometown in Fukushima Prefecture about 20 years ago. She was admitted to Futaba Hospital after her dementia progressed, but she was otherwise healthy when the nuclear disaster struck.

    "It's very sad that she still hasn't been found," her niece told the Mainichi Shimbun. "I can't agree with what TEPCO is asserting."

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