Under the Japanese Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance System, when a worker dies by a willful act, the government is not permitted to pay an insurance benefit (Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance Law, Art. 12-2, Par. 1). However, some recent judicial decisions have recognized a survivor's right to receive insurance benefits in regard to karojisatsu. Other judicial decisions have ordered employers of former employees who committed suicide due to depression from overwork to pay compensation in damages to the survivors of the victims.
On March 24 this year, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that a company has a legal responsibility for an employee's suicide caused by depression from overwork (Dentsu case)(2).
This article examines the meaning of this Supreme Court decision as well as how the law concerning karojisatsu has evolved in Japan.
2.0 Karojisatsu in Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance System and Damage Claim
In Japan, there are two kinds of relief measures for labor-related accidents. These are relief through the Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance System, and relief by civil court reparations (Damage Claim). The survivors of the workers who committed suicide as a result of excessive work hours can use one or both of these relief measures.
2.1 Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance System
Chapter 8 of the Labour Standards Law, Accident Compensation, provides that in the event that a worker suffers an injury, illness or death resulting from employment, the employer is required to furnish medical compensation (Labour Standards Law, Art. 75), compensation for lost time (Id., Art. 76), compensation for discontinuance (Id., Art. 81), compensation for disabilities (Id., Art. 77), survivors' compensation (Id., Art. 79), payment of compensation in installments (Id., Art. 82), and funeral expenses (Id., Art. 80).
The Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance Law was enacted and promulgated at the same time as the Labour Standards Law, and established a Workmen's Accident Compensation System that placed workers' compensation obligations on enterprises for workers' accidents under the Labour Standards Law(3). The Labour Standards Law provides that in the event payments equivalent to accident compensation are to be made under the Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance Law for matters that would give rise to accident compensation under the provisions of the Labour Standards Law, the employer would be exempt from the responsibility of making compensation under the Labour Standards Law (Id., Art. 84).
Thereafter, after repeated revisions, the Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance Law improved the content of insurance payments, and became the principal law governing compensation for workers' accidents in place of the Labour Standards Law(4).
The Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance System provides the necessary insurance benefits to workers suffering injury, disease, disability or death arising from employment, or their survivors. On due application, insurance benefits are paid to the workers, or their survivors. The decision to pay, or not to pay, is made by the Chief of the Labour Standards Inspection Office (Rokishocho) (Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance Law Ords., Art. 1, Par. 3). Only after this payment decision is made does the afflicted worker, or his/her survivors, acquire a concrete right to claim insurance benefits against the government.
In 1996, the Kobe District Court reversed the Kakogawa Rokishocho's decision which denied the survivor's right to receive benefits under the Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance System concerning karojisatsu(5). It was the first case in which survivors of the worker who committed suicide caused by depression from overwork were acknowledged as eligible for labor-related accident compensation. In 1999, the Nagano District Court also reversed the Omachi Rokishocho's decision, which denied the survivors' rights to receive benefits as a consequence of karojisatsu(6).
These District Court judges acknowledged that the workers had committed suicide while of unsound mind caused by depression due to overwork. They believed that in cases where injuries suffered by the deceased result in a depression so severe as to lead to a state of mental instability in which the decedent was in fact unable to resist the impulse to take his or her own life, the suicide cannot be termed as willful.
Last year, the Ministry of Labour set new guidelines with respect to mental disorder and suicide due to work-related fatigue that are covered by Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance. On September 14, the ministry officially notified the Labour Standards Bureaus and Labour Standards Inspection Offices across the country about the changes. Mental disorders had previously been classified as psychogenic, temperamental or internal. Under that arrangement, disorders of the internal type did not qualify for compensation. The new standards incorporate a new set of classifications in line with those promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO). The standards extend the scope of workers' compensation to all types of mental disorders. As for suicides due to overwork, only cases where workers killed themselves while of unsound mind caused by depression, qualified for compensation under the old guidelines. However, the new standards will allow for compensation when suicides are committed in a state of mind where the worker's normal judgment has been impaired as a result of their duties at work(7).
2.2 Damage Claims
If an employer has paid compensation for a worker's accident under the Labour Standards Law, the employer will be exempt, up to the amount of such payments, from responsibility for damages under the Civil Code based on the same grounds that is, for the same worker's accident (Labour Standards Law, Art. 84, Par. 2). If payments equivalent to accident compensation under the Labour Standards Law are to be made under the Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance Law, the employer will also be exempt from responsibility for making compensation under the Labour Standards Law (Id., Art. 84, Par. 1). As a result, payments received under the Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance Law are similarly interpreted as limiting the amount of civil damages recoverable by a worker involved in an accident or that worker's survivors.
On the other hand, an employer is not exempt from responsibility for that portion of a loss that exceeds the amount of workers' accident compensation or workers' accident insurance benefits. This means that the worker involved in an accident or that worker's survivors may claim damages under the Civil Code against the employer(8).
There are three legal contexts in which an employer's responsibility for damages can be pursued(9). First is the ordinary exploration of the responsibility in tort under the Civil Code. Second is the exploration of the responsibility of an owner or occupier for defects in the construction or maintenance of a structure on land. The third context is an exploration of liability for non-performance of an obligation in a contractual relationship.
Until about 1971, the majority of damage claims were made in the first or second context, and were upheld(10). The third context was established in a 1975 Supreme Court decision which declared a direct duty to care for safety on the part of the government towards civil servants (members of a self-defense unit), but held more generally that on the basis of certain legal relations, the aforesaid duty to care for safety when the parties have entered into relations involving special social contacts will also be generally recognized as devolving on one or both parties toward the other based on the good-faith principle(11). Thereafter, the third legal context became the main vehicle for asserting damage claims against employers(12).
In 1996, the Tokyo District Court ordered Dentsu Inc., a major advertising agency, to pay ¥120 million in damages to the parents of a former employee who committed suicide at the age of 24 as a result of excessive work hours(13). This was the first decision to recognize civil liability on a company's part concerning karojisatsu. The High Court decision in this case appeared in 1997(14) and the Kurashiki Branch of Okayama District Court(15), the Sapporo District Court(16), and the Osaka High Court(17) also made orders against former employers to pay compensation to survivors in 1998.
Those decisions examined whether the victim was suffering stress from overwork or work, and whether there was a relationship between stress from overwork or work and the suicide. In most cases the relationship was examined to differentiate the relationship between overwork or stress and depression, and the relationship between the depression and the suicide. As there is medical evidence to suggest that those who suffer from depression tend to commit suicide more often, once the former relationship is established, the relationship between the overwork or stress and the suicide is assumed.
3.0 Dentsu Case
The District Court decision in the Dentsu case is the first in which the company was ordered to pay compensation to the survivors of a victim of karojisatsu. The Supreme Court decision in this case was also the first made at the Supreme Court level. An examination of the Dentsu case is important to understand the civil liability of employers concerning karojisatsu.
3.1 Summary of the Case
Mr. Ichiro Oshima graduated from university and started to work for Dentsu Inc., a major advertising agency on April 1, 1990. Because of his excessive workload, from August he had to work far into the night and sometimes could not return home. Although in March 1991, the chief of his group advised him to return home to sleep, he worked until 6:30 a.m. several times during July and August in 1991. Around this time, he began to show abnormal behavior, such as driving in a meandering manner. On August 27, 1991, he killed himself at home just after the project he was in charge of was completed.
The case was filed by his parents claiming that Mr. Oshima committed suicide as a result of depression arising out of exhaustion from working extraordinarily long hours. They explored both responsibility in tort under the Civil Code, and liability for non-performance of an obligation under labor contract, demanding a total of ¥220 million in damages.
On March 28, 1996, the Tokyo District Court accepted the plaintiff's claim in almost full measure and ordered the former employer, Dentsu, to pay ¥120 million yen(18) . Noticing that the work report the employee had submitted to the company strongly contradicted the file that reported the time he actually left the firm, the court concluded that the company's health-care measures based on the work report were meaningless. Pointing out the fact that the employee worked long hours that far exceeded the limit widely accepted in society, the presiding judge said that, as the employer, the defendant neglected to take appropriate measures to prevent him from becoming sick. The judge thus declared that the employer was to blame for the employee's death(19).
On September 26, 1997, the Tokyo High Court also declared that Dentsu was to blame for Mr. Oshima's death(20). However, the court reduced the amount of compensation to about ¥89 million, ruling that his death was partly attributable to his mental and physical state, including a proneness to depression, and that his parents who lived with him also bore some responsibility for his overworking(21).
On March 24, 2000, the Supreme Court returned the case to the High Court, which is expected to increase the amount of compensation that was reduced to about ¥89 million in the previous ruling(22). The Supreme Court judges acknowledged that employers, in general, have a duty under tort law to organize the work of their employees so that mental and physical illness would not result from the accumulation of excessive fatigue or stress. Although the company was aware of Mr. Oshima's chronic overwork and worsening health, the court ruled that it did not fulfill its responsibility concerning the former employee's excessive workload. The Supreme Court also reversed the High Court decision concerning the reduction in the amount of compensation for Mr. Oshima(23).
3.2 Meaning of the Supreme Court Decision
This Supreme Court decision is very important for several reasons. First, for the first time it clarified the content of the employers' duty of care under tort law towards their employees with regard to illness due to overwork. Second, it showed how to determine the existence of a relationship between overwork and suicide and the existence of negligence. Third, it set limits on the extent to which compensation to be paid by employers to employees who had become ill due to overwork, or their survivors, would be reduced.
3.2.1 Company's Duty of Care
One of the most important features of this Supreme Court decision is that for the first time the Supreme Court ruled that a company has a duty under tort law to organize the work of its employees so that mental and physical illness would not result from the accumulation of excessive fatigue or stress. This interpretation of the company's duty of care will have a great influence on future cases involving illness related to overwork.
The Supreme Court judges also ruled that the employees in administrative or managerial positions who are responsible for managing other employees have the same duty of care as the company and should exercise their rights as such.
The Supreme Court judges pointed out that employers must abide by the restriction of working hours set by the Labour Standards Law, ruled that they have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Law to make an effort to organize work so as to maintain the health of their employees. After doing so, they ruled that a company has a duty to organize the work of its employees so that mental and physical illness would not result from the accumulation of excessive fatigue or stress. This may explain why the Supreme Court judges first clarified the duty of employers before examining the duty of employees in managerial positions. However, in the decisions concerning compensation for labor accidents, in general, judges first examine the liability of the employees in administrative or managerial positions and then argue the employer's liability.
3.2.2 The Relationship between Overwork and Suicide
The Supreme Court approved the High Court decision over the relationship between Mr. Oshima's overwork or working stress and his suicide. This decision acknowledged the relationship between his overwork and depression and underlined the weight of medical evidence that those who suffer from depression tend to commit suicide more often, as in the Kawasaki Seitetsu Mizushima Seitetsujo case(24).
Although Mr. Oshima had killed himself, the Supreme Court estimated he had not suffered from death by a willful act.
3.2.3 Negligence Violation of the Duty of Care
The Supreme Court judges pointed out three matters concerning negligence. The first is that the company was aware of Mr. Oshima's chronic overwork. The second is that the company was aware of his worsening health. The third is that the company did not fulfill its responsibility concerning its former employee's excessive workload.
This means that the Supreme Court considers that the company must lessen its employee's workload only after it is aware of not only its employee's overwork, but also his or her worsening health.
3.2.4 Restriction of Reductions in the Amount of Compensation
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that when deciding the amount of compensation in a traffic accident case, judges can take into consideration the level of damage attributable to the victim's mental state (April 21, 1988)(25). The Supreme Court decision in the Dentsu case set limits on the extent to which compensation to be paid by employers to employees who had become ill due to overwork, or their survivors, would be reduced. It ruled that judges cannot take the victim's mental state into consideration when deciding the amount of compensation, unless the mental state is demonstrably abnormal.
This ruling is reasonable because, whereas in the traffic accident case the plaintiff and the defendant had not known each other until the accident happened, in the overwork case the employers had known their employees and their mental state very well.
This Supreme Court decision in the Dentsu case also ruled that judges should not take into consideration the possibility that members of the victim's family could prevent the suicide even if they lived together, since they could do nothing about the victim's working conditions.
In addition to being acknowledged as eligible for labor-related accident compensation under the Workmen's Accident Compensation Insurance System, the survivors of workers who committed suicide due to overwork have successfully claimed compensation from the victim's former employers under civil law. The Dentsu case was the first Supreme Court decision to order a former employer to pay compensation to survivors for karojisatsu.
This decision is important, not only because the Supreme Court clarified the content of the employer's duty of care to their employees concerning illness due to overwork, but also because it ruled that judges cannot take the victim's mental state into consideration when deciding the amount of compensation by employers of employees who become ill due to stress from overwork, unless the mental state is demonstrably abnormal.
(1) See National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi, Karoshi (1990).
(2) Dentsu case, Supr. Ct., 2nd Petty Bench, Mar. 24, 2000; 724 Rodo Hanrei 13.
(3) Kazuo Sugeno, Japanese Labor Law 319 (1992).
(4) Id., at 319.
(5) Kakogawa Rokishocho (Kobe Seitetsujo) case, Kobe Dist. Ct., April 26, 1996, 695 Rodo Hanrei 31.
(6) Omachi Rokishocho (Sanko) case, Nagano Dist. Ct., Mar. 12, 1999, 764 Rodo Hanrei 43.
(7) See Japan Labor Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 11, p. 5 (1999).
(8) Sugeno, supra note 3, at 335.
(9) Id., at 335.
(10) Id., at 336.
(11) Jieitai Sharyo Seibi Kojo case, Supr. Ct., 3rd Petty Bench, Feb. 25, 1975, 27 Minshu 143.
(12) Sugeno, supra note 3, at 336.
(13) Dentsu case, Tokyo Dist. Ct., Mar. 28, 1996, 692 Rodo Hanrei 13.
(14) Dentsu case, Tokyo High Ct., Sep. 26, 1997, 724 Rodo Hanrei 13.
(15) Kawasaki Seitetsu Mizushima Seitetsujo case, Kurashiki Branch of Okayama Dist. Ct., Feb. 23, 1998, 733 Rodo Hanrei 13.
(16) Kyosei Kensetsu Kogyo etc., case, Sapporo Dist. Ct., July 16, 1998, 744 Rodo Hanrei 29.
(17) Higashi Kakogawa Youjien case, Osaka High Ct., August 27, 1998, 744 Rodo Hanrei 17.
(18) Dentsu case, supra note 13.
(19) See Japan Labor Bulletin, vol. 35, no. 6, p. 3 (1996).
(20) Dentsu case, supra note 14.
(21) See Japan Labor Bulletin, vol. 39, no. 6, p. 4 (2000).
(22) Dentsu case, supra note 2.
(23) See Japan Labor Bulletin, vol. 39, no. 6, p. 4 (2000).
(24) Kawasaki Seitetsu Mizushima Seitetsujo case, supra note 15.
(25) Supr. Ct., 1st Petty Bench, Apr. 21, 1988, 42 Minshu 4-243.
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