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OKINAWA CITY, Okinawa — A lawsuit by hundreds of Ginowan residents trying to curtail noise from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma was handed a setback in Naha District Court Thursday when a judge ruled their complaint will have to be separated into two separate lawsuits — one against Col. Richard Lueking, the Futenma commander; the second against the Japanese government.

The 404 plaintiffs had attempted to sue both the commander and Japanese government at once. Forcing them to file separate suits weakens their argument that the commander and Japan — which lets the United States use the urban land for its air station — are equally liable.

“We named the commander as a co-defendant because he is jointly responsible for the willful misconduct,” said Tsutomu Arakaki, chief attorney representing the 404 plaintiffs. “Separating defendants who are jointly and equally responsible is quite abnormal from the standard of court procedures. The court ... deserves criticism for its action.”

The complaint is the first Japanese aircraft noise suit in which a U.S. military officer has been named as a co-defendant. The Ginowan residents contend Lueking has complete authority and discretionary power for base operations and thereby can decide what hours and which routes aircraft should fly over the crowded urban community surrounding the base.

The court is expected to rule on Sept. 16 — perhaps moving the convoluted legal proceedings another step closer to resolution.

The residents filed the lawsuit in October 2002, seeking $5.51 million compensation for physical and mental health damages. They also are demanding an end to all flights from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Court proceedings on the issue were stalled for more than a year when those suing were unable to serve papers on Lueking. The hearings were resumed in February, when the court publicly posted the lawsuit — in Japan, an alternative way to serve the defendant.

Lueking has not appeared at any of the hearings to defend himself. U.S. officials have stated that since the suit is against a person acting in an official capacity as a representative of the U.S. government, it’s a lawsuit against the United States, meaning any papers should be served through Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Japanese officials have argued that the court should dismiss the suit because the U.S. military decides the flight schedules.

“As a Supreme Court ruling indicates, the demand is for activities of a third party, who is beyond the control of the defendant,” a government brief stated. “The demand is, therefore, irrelevant and thus should be rejected.”

“As a Supreme Court ruling indicates, the demand is for activities of a third party, who is beyond the control of the defendant,” a government brief stated. “The demand is, therefore, irrelevant and thus should be rejected.”

The next hearing for the case against the Japanese government is set for Oct. 7.

Following Thursday’s hearing, about 30 residents and supporters staged a brief protest rally at the main gate to MCAS Futenma.

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