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Japan's top court holds state liable for asbestos damage to workers' health

Lawyers hold up banners showing victory in an asbestos health damage case in front of the Supreme Court in Tokyo on May 17, 2021. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's top court on Monday ruled in favor of around 500 plaintiffs in four suits seeking damages from the state over diseases contracted by construction workers following exposure to asbestos.

    In the first unified judgment handed down by the Supreme Court over the suits, the ruling said the government was negligent in its duty to protect workers from contracting lung cancer and other diseases linked to asbestos.

    It said manufacturers of construction materials containing asbestos were also responsible to some extent, in its ruling on the four lawsuits filed with district courts in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Kyoto.

    The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been considering submitting a proposal that the government pay compensation of up to 13 million yen ($119,000) to each victim exposed to the substance, a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that was widely used for insulation, fire protection and sound absorption.

    Since 2008, a number of damages suits, including the four on Monday, have been filed nationwide related to asbestos exposure at construction sites, with by 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.

    The state, meanwhile, argued it only had a responsibility to protect company employees as self-employed workers are responsible for their own health and safety.

    Manufacturers denied responsibility on the grounds that it was impossible to confirm which materials were responsible for the diseases contracted.

    The use of the substance was gradually regulated as it was found that inhaling asbestos fibers could cause lung cancer and other diseases. Due to the decades-long latency period, it was referred to as a "silent time bomb."

    A law to provide financial support to people suffering from asbestos-linked diseases took effect in Japan in 2006.

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