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Fukuoka court holds local gov't responsible for worker's asbestos exposure in Japan first

The Fukuoka government building that houses the Fukuoka District Court is seen in this file photo taken in the city's Chuo Ward. (Mainichi)

KITAKYUSHU -- In a ruling lawyers say is the first of its kind in Japan to assign responsibility for the management of asbestos in buildings to a municipal government, the Fukuoka District Court ordered the Kitakyushu Municipal Government and a building maintenance firm on Sept. 16 to pay damages totaling 25.8 million yen (about $246,000) to the family of a worker who died of lung disease he developed following exposure to asbestos.

    Nobutaka Futami, a resident of Kitakyushu in southwest Japan, had fulfilled duties including inspections at the Kitakyushu City General Gymnasium in the city's Yahatahigashi Ward, and died aged 78. His family launched a suit seeking 34 million yen (some $324,000) in damages from the city government and the company that assigned him the work, on the basis that his death had been caused by inadequate asbestos countermeasures.

    The family's attorneys hailed the ruling as the first of its kind to recognize a municipal government's responsibility for asbestos management. It indicated an aggressive stance toward the government, in the form of pursuing further responsibility for asbestos harm prevention even after work is commissioned.

    According to the ruling, Futami began working at the gymnasium as an employee of Taihei building services in 1990, and in his responsibility for the management of the property, he would oversee equipment, perform inspections and do other duties. In a number of places, the gymnasium was constructed using asbestos. In 2005, Futami underwent surgery for lung cancer and retired, and in 2013 he died.

    In the ruling handed down by presiding judge Atsushi Tokuchi, he said that because Futami was "engaged in work that presented a danger of inhaling asbestos particles," the court acknowledged that his lung cancer had been brought on by breathing in asbestos. Futami had surgery to remove his left lung, and the court recognized a causal relationship between the asbestos exposure and his later death.

    He added that at the time the man started working in 1990 the dangers to health presented by asbestos were widely known. He said that despite the city being able to foresee the danger to an outsourced contract worker entering the premises, there was "no indication that it had issued warnings to the company, or instructed workers to wear particulate respirator masks," and that therefore the responsibility for the man's death lay with the city government.

    In response to the ruling, the city government said, "We will consider our response following careful investigation of the ruling's content."

    (Japanese original by Keisuke Muneoka, Kyushu News Department)

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