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Exhaust Pollution Suit

Published in the SCMP on Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Plaintiffs win exhaust pollution suit but carmakers not responsible

A court on Tuesday awarded damages to Tokyo residents with health problems caused by exhaust pollution but found car manufactures not directly responsible for their illness.

A set of lawsuits filed by more than 500 people in the capital has caught the public’s attention because the plaintiffs demand not only the government and other entities pay damages, but also major car manufacturers.

When handing down a ruling on cases involving 99 plaintiffs Tuesday, the Tokyo District Court ordered the central government, Tokyo Metropolitan Hall and the Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. to pay some 79 million yen in damages to seven of them.

“Those who live within 50 meters from road sections where more than 40,000 vehicles pass during 12 daytime hours” are victims qualified to receive damages, said Presiding Judge Toshifumi Takahashi.

The court, however, didn’t order the seven defendant businesses, such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., to pay damages because it said they were not in a position to control where owners drove their vehicles.

“The companies cannot control the movement of vehicles they have sold, so they are powerless to stop the concentration of cars in major cities,” Takahashi said. “You cannot accuse the companies of neglecting their duty to avoid causing health risks by manufacturing and selling vehicles.”

Takahashi also turned down the plaintiffs’ request that the court order the defendants take measures to stop cars emitting what is called suspended particulate matter (SPM), a major source of air pollution which is contained in exhaust gas.

The justice cited the fact that the court couldn’t exactly measure the concentration of SPM in polluted areas as a reason for dismissing the request to ban it.

Despite the ruling’s failure to blame car manufacturers for the plaintiffs’ illness such as asthma, lawyers representing them said the decision was significant as it admitted the causal relationship between exhaust gas and health ailments.

“I think the ruling is encouraging to hundreds of thousands of sickened people who have not yet been designated as air pollution victims,” Lawyer Yusaku Tsurumi said. One of the seven plaintiffs — a 17-year-old girl — is not officially recognized as a pollution victim. Formal recognition allows victims to receive health allowances to cover their medical costs.

The main sources of air pollution in Tokyo and other major cities are SPM and carbon dioxide emitted from diesel-powered vehicles.

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association claimed that domestic car manufacturers’ efforts to cut exhaust gas from diesel-powered vehicles have caught up with their counterparts in Europe and the United States.

But the latest models with diesel engines emitting less exhaust gas are expensive and the recession-hit trucking industry is reluctant to purchase environment-friendly models.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government understands the seriousness of air pollution in the capital. Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said the metropolitan hall would not appeal Tuesday’s ruling. “We must not waste our energy on an appeal,” Ishihara said. “Now we have to tighten regulations on exhaust gas and think about how to help air pollution victims.”

Tokyo plans to launch stricter regulations on diesel-powered vehicles in October 2003.

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