SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court rejected affirmed a district court’s rejection of a Japanese power company’s motion to dismiss a $1 billion lawsuit brought by American sailors, who were allegedly harmed by radiation exposure during a relief effort following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
On June 22, a three-judge appellate panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously rejected an attempt by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to secure the dismissal of the class-action lawsuit. The suit was launched by American sailors who allegedly sustained injuries related to radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant during a relief effort in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The appellate panel affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California’s rejection of TEPCO’s motion to have the suit dismissed on the grounds that U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction to try the case.
TEPCO’s initial challenge to U.S. jurisdiction is rooted in its interpretation of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC), a 1997 international liability agreement concerning nuclear accidents. TEPCO argued that Article XIII of the CSC, which states “jurisdiction over actions concerning nuclear damage from a nuclear incident shall lie only with the courts of the contracting party within which the nuclear incident occurs,” invalidates U.S. jurisdiction. The appellate panel affirmed the district court’s ruling that the CSC, though signed in 1997, was only valid after it went into effect in April 2015. The sailors launched the lawsuit in December 2012.
TEPCO also challenged U.S. jurisdiction by citing international comity, a legal tradition allowing courts to decline jurisdiction in a court case when a foreign country has a “strong interest” in trying the case on its own soil. The appellate panel rejected this argument, noting that even though Japan had a strong interest in a case involving an incident on Japanese soil, the U.S. had a strong interest in prosecuting the case in the U.S. because the alleged victims were members of the U.S. military, and the U.S. “had a strong interest in maintaining jurisdiction over this [case] in order to help promote the CSC.”
TEPCO’s final challenge to U.S. jurisdiction was that the case violated U.S. constitutional law because it conflicted with the political question doctrine, which restricts the federal judiciary to deciding legal questions and bars it from deciding political questions.
The panel also rejected this argument, ruling that at this time the court was “unable to undertake the ‘discriminating inquiry’ necessary to determine if the case presented a political question because there were outstanding basic factual questions regarding the Navy’s operations” during the relief effort. However, the panel noted that TEPCO was free to raise the international comity and political question issues again if information was uncovered providing justifications for those arguments.
The sailors represented in the case were deployed off the coast of Fukushima aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier on March 12, 2011, during Operation Tomodachi, a U.S. relief response following an earthquake and tsunami that caused massive damage to the region. The carrier was moved two days later, allegedly after radiation was detected.
The sailors allege they were harmed by radiation exposure because TEPCO leadership and Japanese government officials allegedly conspired to downplay the threat posed by the damaged nuclear reactor.
The sailors launched the lawsuit on Dec. 21, 2012, seeking $10 million in damages each, along with $30 in punitive damages, and a $100 million healthcare fund for future monitoring and medical treatment.