Photo/Illutration Plaintiffs arrive at the Osaka High Court in August 2018 to hear its ruling on compensation claims for health damage caused by asbestos. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Supreme Court ruled that construction materials companies, not just the central government, must also be held accountable for not acting earlier to prevent health damage from inhalation of asbestos among former construction workers.

Its decision could have wide-ranging ramifications as 24 similar lawsuits have been filed around Japan by former construction workers, a number of whom are now deceased, and their bereaved family members seeking compensation from the state as well as construction companies.

The Supreme Court finalized the central government’s responsibility in a separate lawsuit on Dec. 14.

In its latest ruling dated Jan. 28, the First Petty Bench rejected an appeal by the defendants and finalized an Osaka High Court ruling in August 2018 that ordered 300 million yen ($2.9 million) be paid in compensation by the central government and eight construction materials companies. The 27 former construction workers and their relatives had sought about 1 billion yen in compensation from the state and 32 private companies.

Past court rulings focused on the fact that asbestos manufactured by a number of different firms may be used at a single workplace, making it difficult to pinpoint which product was responsible for health problems that later materialized.

But in a 2016 ruling, the Kyoto District Court for the first time ruled that the construction materials companies were also responsible. It calculated their market share of asbestos to determine the amount of compensation the companies had to pay.

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold the district court ruling approved by the Osaka High Court means that the decision about company responsibility will likely also serve as a precedent in the other lawsuits now before courts.

“The companies had long argued that they were not responsible on grounds there was no telling what construction materials were being used,” Akira Murayama, the lawyer who heads the team for the plaintiffs, said at a Jan. 29 news conference in Kyoto. “But the Supreme Court has now recognized that stance as totally unacceptable.”

He called on the companies to expediently discuss payment of the compensation with the central government, given that many of the plaintiffs are now elderly and suffer from illnesses such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, caused by inhaling asbestos in the workplace.

In rejecting the appeal by the defendants, the Supreme Court did not spell out a clear reasoning for the decision. Two other cases are still pending before the Supreme Court, which is expected to explain its reasoning when it issues a ruling on all four cases, including the latest one stemming from the Kyoto District Court, as well as the December ruling on the Tokyo High Court decision.

The former construction workers in Kyoto Prefecture who were plaintiffs in the latest case sought compensation on grounds 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 Osaka High Court ruling not only affirmed the use of market share in finding the companies responsible, but also 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.

(This article was written by Shunsuke Abe and Masayuki Takashima.)