Photo/Illutration Plaintiffs head to the Tokyo High Court in March 2018 to hear the verdict in their lawsuit seeking compensation from the central government and construction materials companies. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Supreme Court has finalized central government responsibility for not acting earlier to prevent health damage from inhalation of asbestos and may even be considering whether construction materials companies should also be held liable.

In a ruling dated Dec. 14, the First Petty Bench upheld the March 2018 ruling by the Tokyo High Court that found the central government responsible and ordered it to pay compensation totaling about 2.28 billion yen ($22.1 million) to 337 former construction workers and bereaved family members in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

The former construction workers who were plaintiffs in the case sought compensation on the grounds that the central government and construction materials companies did nothing to publicize the dangers of asbestos or to make wearing face masks obligatory even though the dangers of inhaling asbestos were known in the 1960s.

The first decision by the Supreme Court on asbestos-related cases also upheld the high court ruling that found freelance, self-employed construction workers should also be considered as “workers” protected by the Industrial Safety and Health Law. In the past, only workers employed by companies were considered covered by the provisions of the law.

The Supreme Court did not issue a written decision, but only finalized the high court ruling by rejecting the central government's appeal. The ruling could affect 17 other lawsuits related to health damage, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, caused by inhaling asbestos in the workplace.

The First Petty Bench also accepted the appeal by plaintiffs, who were upset that the high court ruling denied any compensation responsibility on the part of construction materials manufacturers.

The top court set Feb. 25 as the date for hearing arguments. Such a procedural move is necessary to overturn a high court ruling, and the top court decision may mean that the companies could be found liable for paying compensation.

A Tokyo District Court ruling in December 2012 only stated that company employees were eligible for compensation to be paid by the central government. The high court ruling expanded the range of coverage to the self-employed construction workers.

However, neither the district or high courts found the construction materials companies responsible.

Past court rulings have focused on the fact that asbestos manufactured by a number of different companies may be used at a single workplace so it would be difficult to pinpoint which product was the actual cause of the health problems.

But lawyers for the construction workers utilized the Civil Law provision about collective liability and argued the compensation amounts to be paid by the construction materials companies should be calculated based on their market share for the suspect materials.

(This article was written by Shunsuke Abe and Takehiko Sawaji, a senior staff writer.)