Japanese court rules against Fukushima operator Tepco in landmark suicide case
Fukushima nuclear operator ordered to pay HK$3.65m in damages to bereaved husband
A Japanese court has ruled that Fukushima nuclear operator Tokyo Electric was responsible for a woman's suicide after the March 2011 disaster and must pay compensation, in a landmark ruling that could set a precedent for other claims against the utility.
The civil suit by Mikio Watanabe claimed that Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) was to blame for the July 2011 death of his wife, Hamako, 58, who doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire after falling into depression.
The district court in Fukushima ruled in favour of Watanabe, a court official said. Kyodo news reported that Tepco was ordered to pay 49 million yen (HK$3.65 million) in compensation. Watanabe had sought about 91 million yen in damages.
The court decision is the latest blow for the utility, which was bailed out with taxpayer funds in 2012 and expects to spend more than US$48 billion in compensation for the nuclear disaster.
The triple nuclear meltdowns forced more than 150,000 people from their homes, about a third of whom remain in temporary housing.
"We would like to deeply apologise again for the disruption and concern that the Fukushima Daiichi accident caused to many people, first and foremost the people of Fukushima," Tepco said in a statement following the verdict.
"We understand that there has been a verdict handed down in this case. We will study the verdict and respond in a sincere way," it added.
"We pray that Hamako Watanabe has found peace."
Tepco has previously agreed to pay damages to the bereaved family of a farmer who committed suicide at age 64 on March 24, 2011, through an out-of-court settlement. Tepco has settled a number of other suicide-related claims through a government dispute resolution system, but has declined to say how many or how much it has paid.
Watanabe, who had declined to settle out of court, said after the verdict: "I am satisfied with the decision."
According to the written indictment, the area in the town of Kawamata where Watanabe's home stands was designated as an evacuation zone on April 22, 2011, about a month after the crisis was triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan.
Their home was located about 40km away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Watanabe and other family members evacuated to an apartment in the city of Fukushima in June, but she burned herself to death on July 1 when she temporarily returned to her home.
The plaintiffs have said Watanabe's mental state deteriorated because she was not able to foresee when she could return home and the farm where the couple worked had closed in June.
Tepco has admitted the nuclear accident had placed a severe psychological burden on Watanabe. But the utility also said other factors could have affected her, noting she had trouble sleeping before the accident and was on medication.
Additional reporting by Kyodo