The first high court ruling on an asbestos lawsuit in Japan contained both good news and bad news for people suffering from health problems caused by exposure to the toxic material.

Some aspects of the Tokyo High Court’s ruling, handed down on Oct. 27 amid much public attention, represent a step toward better relief for asbestos victims. But other aspects constitute a slight step backward.

The high court ruled that the government and four construction materials makers are responsible for the lung ailments, such as mesothelioma and cancer, of construction workers exposed to asbestos included in construction materials. The workers and bereaved family members who filed the lawsuit were awarded 370 million yen ($3.25 million) in total.

A series of district court rulings have effectively established the view that the government is legally liable for failing to take appropriate regulatory measures to restrict the use of asbestos.

The high court upheld the view but significantly shortened the period of liability from those acknowledged by some district courts.

The high court’s decision is controversial. Many would argue that it should have come down harder on the government, which started restricting asbestos use through labor regulations long after other major countries responded to the health hazard posed by the material.

On the other hand, the court took a more activist stance concerning the liability of the companies.

Since many construction workers move from site to site over a long period of time, it is generally difficult to identify the makers of the construction materials that have caused their health problems.

The Tokyo High Court, however, argued that it is possible to estimate individual companies’ shares of liability by using such information as the periods in which the companies manufactured the products in question and the market shares of their products. In line with this argument, the court held the construction materials makers liable to pay compensation to the victims.

The court decision also gave new hope to free-lance, self-employed construction workers who are regarded as sole proprietors and not eligible for protection under labor laws.

The court proposed a way to provide legal relief to such workers based on the realities of their work. This is another notable point of the ruling.

The legal case came as a fresh reminder of the seriousness of the problem.

Japan imported huge amounts of asbestos from the 1970s to the 1990s. The mineral was used widely as a spraying material and a roof material during the years of strong economic growth.

Many people who were exposed to asbestos while working at construction sites during the period are now suffering from serious diseases and dying agonizing deaths.

Since asbestos-linked diseases develop gradually over decades, the number of victims is expected to grow in the coming years.

A system was created more than a decade ago to provide financial relief to asbestos victims. But it is not based on the assumption that the government is legally liable for health damage caused by asbestos and is stingy with compensation payments.

Both the government and the companies involved should take seriously their responsibility for the problem acknowledged by the high court and start taking effective action to offer sufficient relief to asbestos victims.

Patients suffering from asbestos-related illness are demanding a new compensation fund financed by the government and companies that made profits from the use of substance.

The fund could be modeled on an existing compensation system for victims of pollution that requires companies that have emitted pollutants to shoulder the financial burden.

The new relief system for asbestos victims should be designed to cover a wide range of sufferers, including self-employed construction workers.

Due to the characteristics of asbestos-related illnesses, many people suffering health problems stemming from asbestos exposure are not aware of the cause of their ailments.

This is another issue that needs to be addressed through cooperation with medical institutions to ensure that such patients are treated properly and receive due compensation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 28