Supreme Court reverses judgment denying damages to ex-RCA workers
Taipei, March 11 (CNA) The Supreme Court on Friday ruled in favor of 222 former Radio Corp. of America (RCA) factory workers exposed to cancer-causing chemicals, overturning a 2020 lower court decision to deny damages.
The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Taiwan High Court on grounds that exposure to the toxic chemicals may have violated the appellants' constitutional rights even where a causal relationship with illness had not been established.
The Supreme Court also upheld a decision made by the high court in March 2020 to award NT$54.7 million (US$1.82 million) in compensation to 24 other plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit brought by former RCA employees and relatives of deceased or injured workers against RCA, its parent company, and successor entities in 2004.
In 2020, the high court ruled that the 24 plaintiffs were entitled to compensation for the company's toxic chemical pollution blamed for sickening or causing the deaths of thousands of RCA workers at its Taoyuan factory from 1970 to 1992.
However, the lower court denied damages to the 222 others, saying they either had not proved any illnesses of the factory's pollution, or displayed no obvious exterior signs of being sick.
Supreme Court Judge Kao Meng-hsun (高孟焄), however, said Friday that the high court's verdict was "problematic" and "controversial."
The high court had agreed that in this case, the plaintiffs' burden of proof should be relieved, but its decision to deny the damages was based on the fact that they had failed to establish the causal relationship between their disease and the pollution, Kao said.
In addition, the Constitution guarantees the right to bodily integrity and health, and the violation of these rights is not limited to diseases that can be diagnosed or require medical treatment, Kao said.
According to Kao, the act of exposing someone to highly toxic elements, which causes them to have a higher risk of becoming sick and consequently makes them feel distressed, may be considered a violation of these constitutional rights.
Employers are obliged to protect the health of their employees at the workplace, but those former RCA workers were made to drink toxic water and exposed to harmful substances at the factory, Kao said.
She suggested that the psychological and emotional toll felt by some of the former RCA workers were not isolated cases and that the high court had failed to take that into account.
Shortly after the ruling was delivered, dozens of members of the RCA self-help group and the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI) cheered outside the Supreme Court building for their victory, chanting "We have won! Never give up!"
TAVOI Secretary-General Li Mei-chu (利梅菊) said she was pleased about the ruling today, adding that their two decades of persistence had finally paid off.
RCA operated three major plants in Zhubei in Hsinchu County, Yilan County, and what was then Taoyuan County, now the municipality of Taoyuan, from 1970 to 1992.
The three factories employed around 80,000 workers at their peak.
In 1986, RCA was taken over by American multinational conglomerate General Electric (GE), which sold the Taoyuan factory in 1988 to Thomson Consumer Electronics, the U.S. subsidiary of the French Technicolor SA, before it moved production of electronic products to China.
Three years after its takeover, Thomson found severe pollution at the Taoyuan factory and as a result shut it down the following year, but by then some of its 20,000 workers had been diagnosed with cancer.
In 1998, a group of workers who fell victim to industrial pollution organized a self-help association to seek compensation through legal channels, triggering years of lawsuits involving nearly 2,000 plaintiffs.
During subsequent investigations, RCA was found liable for the illnesses, including cancer, contracted by its employees due to exposure to some 30 types of organic solvents, including the carcinogen trichloroethylene.
The company was also found to have been dumping toxic waste close to its factory, contaminating the soil and underground water.
Joseph Lin (林永頌), an attorney who leads a group of volunteer lawyers in the lawsuit, acknowledged that Friday's ruling was not an end because the retrial at the high court will take months or even years to proceed.
But Lin was optimistic about the following legal battle, adding the trial was likely to be focused on compensation to the 222 plaintiffs.
The Supreme Court ruling indicated that the emotional distress of the former RCA workers should be considered in the case and that the high court in principle must adopt this view in the trial, Lin said.
According to Lin, Friday's ruling by the Supreme Court is also "a major breakthrough" that will have a significant influence in future lawsuits related to occupational injuries or environmental pollution.
The court has made it clear that the violation of a person's health is not limited to physical diseases but also includes mental illnesses and other pathological conditions, Lin added.
In a separate class lawsuit against RCA and three of its affiliates -- GE, Thomson Consumer Electronics (Bermuda), and Technicolor SA -- the Taipei District Court in December 2019 ruled in favor of 1,115 claimants, awarding them a total of about NT$2.3 billion.
That ruling has been appealed by both sides to the Taiwan High Court, and the verdict is expected to be delivered in April.
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