Lawsuit filed over Yokosuka work
July 10, 2003
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Eleven more former Japanese shipyard workers and surviving family members sued the Japanese government Monday, claiming work done on U.S. Navy vessels at Yokosuka led to fatal lung diseases.
The lawsuit — the third filed by different groups of former workers in recent years — seeks 230 million yen, or about $1.9 million, in damages for the five former workers and family members of six deceased workers. It was filed in the Yokohama District Court’s Yokosuka branch.
The five living workers — who range in age from 76 to 86 — claim they contracted pneumoconiosis, a fatal lung ailment, after years of unprotected work involving asbestos on U.S. ships.
Six other former workers who died from lung cancer or pneumoconiosis are represented by their survivors, an attorney for the group said Tuesday.
Takeshi Furukawa, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, said he believes judgments in the previous lawsuits give the government no room to challenge the claims.
“There is no point which the government can contest,” Furukawa said. “We hope for an early settlement and for the government to accept the ruling.”
Last October, a Japanese court awarded 231 million yen to 17 former Yokosuka shipworkers who filed the first lawsuit.
In May, however, the Tokyo High Court ruled that five of the former workers were ineligible because a statute of limitations had passed; 80 million yen was cut from the award.
Furukawa also represented the shipyard workers in the previous two cases.
In the lawsuit filed Monday, Furukawa said none of the plaintiffs will be affected by a statute of limitations, which requires claims be made within 10 years of a medical diagnosis.
Navy officials had little to say about the claims.
“Since we are not party to the lawsuit, it is inappropriate for me to comment,” Cmdr. David Wells, a Commander, Naval Forces Japan spokesman, said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
Wells referred all questions about the case to the Japan Defense Facility Administration Agency, which handles issues related to Japanese workers on U.S. bases.
An agency spokesman declined to comment on Monday’s lawsuit, saying officials had not yet received a copy.
The spokesman said he did not know whether the U.S. Navy has provided any documents or historical records in any of the asbestos cases.
The court would know what assistance the Navy or the U.S. government provided, the spokesman said.
Wells referred questions about any Navy cooperation or assistance in the cases back to the Japanese agency.
Yokosuka’s ship repair facility is the Navy’s largest outside the United States.
During the Korean and Vietnam wars, the shipyard hired thousands of Japanese workers to overhaul warships and cargo vessels coming in to refuel, rearm and undergo repairs.
At the time, almost all Navy ships were steam-powered. Huge boilers turned seawater into superheated steam, which was routed throughout the ship in thousands of feet of piping. Over time, the steam would eat through the pipes. Most of those steam lines, and their replacements, were encased in asbestos insulation.
The former shipyard workers say they weren’t given proper protective equipment or warned about the possible dangers of breathing the asbestos fibers.