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Japan: Supreme Court Ruling on Liability of Kin of Elderly with Dementia

(Apr. 26, 2016) On March 1, 2016, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled on the liability of the family of a dementia sufferer who was struck and killed by a train to pay damages to the Central Japan Railway Company.  (2014(Ju)1434 (S. Ct., 3rd petty bench, Mar. 1, 2016), COURTS IN JAPAN (click pdf icon to view) (in Japanese).)  The railway company filed the lawsuit against the wife and son of the deceased.

The main issue in the trial was whether the dementia patient’s family members who were involved in the care of the deceased should be held legally responsible and made to pay compensation for the train service delays caused by the accident. The decision had been eagerly awaited by the public, because there are many people in the country who have elderly parents or grandparents with dementia.  (Shusuke Murai, Japan’s Supreme Court Dismisses Liability of Family in Death of Man with Dementia, JAPAN TIMES (Mar. 1, 2016).)

Civil Code Provisions on the Mentally Impaired

A mentally disabled person, who does not have the capacity to appreciate the consequences of his/her actions, is not held liable or made to pay compensation for damages that he or she inflicts on others. (Civil Code, Act No. 89 of 1896, amended by Act No. 94 of 2013, art. 713, JAPANESE LAW TRANSLATION.)  Instead, a person with the legal obligation to supervise the incapacitated person (the custodian) is liable for damages to a third party.  (Id. art. 714, ¶ 1.)  If the damages could not have been avoided even if the custodian has carried out his/her obligations, the custodian is exempted from the liability.  (Id.)  A person who supervises an incapacitated person on behalf of a custodian also may be held liable.  (Id. art. 714, ¶ 2.)

The Supreme Court Ruling

In the case at hand, the Supreme Court ruled that the wife and son of the deceased were not custodians in this context. Prior to the amendment to the Civil Code and the Mental Health and Mentally Disabled Persons Welfare Act in 1999, a guardian of an incapacitated person was obligated to watch that the incapacitated person not hurt him/herself or others.  However, the amendments released guardians from such an obligation.  It appears that, under the current law, only institutions that care for the mentally disabled can be such custodians and therefore can be found liable for actions of the disabled patient. (Justice Michiyoshi Kiuchi’s supplemental opinion, 2014(Ju)1434 (S. Ct., 3rd petty bench, Mar. 1, 2016), supra.)

The Court stated, however, that the wife and the son could be liable if they are persons who are regarded as equivalent to the custodians and it enumerated the standards or making such a decision, as follows.

… decisions should be made based on objective circumstances, such as: 1) the circumstances of the guardian’s own life, including physical and mental condition; 2) whether they have kinship ties with the dementia sufferer and how close that relationship is; 3) whether they live with the patient and how often they meet daily; 4) whether they are involved in managing the patient’s finances; 5) whether the patient has any behavioral problems, and the nature of those problems; 6) the conditions of nursing care. (A Supreme Court Ruling and the Problems of Liability in Graying Japan, MAINICHI NEWSPAPER (Mar. 2, 2016).)

After examining the circumstances, the Court decided that neither the wife nor the son could be considered equivalent to a custodian.  (014(Ju)1434 (S. Ct., 3rd petty bench, Mar. 1, 2016), supra.)