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Japan’s Liability Laws Starting to Change

November 30, 2003

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) _ By U.S. standards, Yoko Masuda isn’t asking for much in damages for the death of her daughter, crushed by a wheel that rolled off a Mitsubishi Motors Corp. truck.

Her suit against the company seeks $51,000 for the stress and high blood pressure she has suffered since her daughter, Shiho Okamoto, 29, was killed as she walked down a sidewalk in the January 2002. ``I feel as though a part of my body has been torn away,″ Masuda said, choking back tears.

Still, her petition is significant in a country where the first product liability law was passed only in 1994, and where damage suits are relatively rare. It signals a still-limited but growing acceptance of consumer rights and corporate responsibility.

``Japan’s laws to protect consumers’ rights are far behind those in Europe or the United States,″ her lawyer, Katsuji Aoki said. ``Japanese consumers are getting shortchanged.″

The suit, filed in March, received a critical boost last month when police raided the automaker’s headquarters and plant in an investigation of the death. While no charges have been filed police say they suspect criminal responsibility and professional negligence because the part that links the axle to the wheel was broken.

Legal experts, including her own lawyer, acknowledge the odds remain against Masuda. Companies are rarely required to pay more than a token amount of several thousand dollars. Even when convicted, executives are generally handed lenient sentences with no prison terms.

Old-style Japanese tend to dislike people who stand out or resort to confrontation, and suing for money is viewed as greedy and unseemly.

Trials last for years, discouraging some people who might sue, and cases rarely get national media attention.

But gradually some individuals are starting to turn to the courts, and the amount of damages sought are beginning to increase.

In one recent, still unresolved suit, a family is asking $913,000 in the drowning of a girl in a bath after her hair got caught in the faucet.

Four years ago, a court ordered a school-lunch maker pay $411,000 to the parents of a girl who died from food poisoning.

In one of the earlier suits, a restaurant owner asked an ice-tea maker for $8,300 for a finger injury he suffered while trying to open the paper package. After a four-year court battle, he lost the case.

In Masuda’s case, Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Motors, 37 percent owned by Germany’s DaimlerChrysler AG, has denied any error in production or design of the trucks. It said the bolts on the wheel were not properly tightened.

But the automaker has acknowledged that 50 cases of wheels falling off were reported for the truck model in question, which was sold only in Japan. There have been no other reports of injuries or damage. Mitsubishi Motors did not recall the trucks, but carried out free inspections and changed parts in 73,000 vehicles last year.

``We are cooperating fully with the investigation,″ CEO Rolf Eckrodt told reporters recently.

Fumio Matsuda, president of the Japan Automobile Consumers Union, a group of lawyers and engineers, said Japan needs an independent monitor similar to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to gather data and ensure accountability by automakers.

``Without that, tragedies like this will keep happening,″ he said.

Mitsubishi Motors has been plagued by quality-control problems. Three years ago the company acknowledged it systematically hid auto defects to avoid recalls for more than two decades. The disclosure resulted in more than a million vehicles being recalled.

Masuda sees hereself as not just fighting for her own compensation, but for other consumers, too.

``Vehicles like that shouldn’t be allowed on the streets,″ she said. ``I can’t help feeling hatred. It’s totally unforgivable.″

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