Asbestos Litigation Comes to South Korea

Asbestos litigation has long been a fact of life in the U.S., particularly since the late 1970s. Australia, the U.K. and other European countries as well as Japan have also seen a fair amount of asbestos-related lawsuits over the past quarter century. Such litigation was unknown in South Korea until this year, however.
The victim was a mere sixteen years old when he went to work for an asbestos manufacturer in Busang, South Korea. In October of 2006, the man died from mesothelioma at the age of 46. His family filed the first asbestos-related lawsuit in a court located in the city of Daegu, about 110 miles southeast of Seoul. On Tuesday, 4 December, Judge Kim Se-Jong ordered the asbestos manufacturer to pay the equivalent of 141,000 U.S. dollars to the victim’s family, making this the first such judgment in South Korean legal history.

The plaintiffs, who were not named, were represented by Li Ho-Chol, who was pleased with Kim’s ruling. Li acknowledged what U.S. litigators have long known: “It usually takes a long time before the damage caused by asbestos exposure surfaces and therefore it is hard to prove the links between the material and illness.” In the U.S., such a case would attract little attention today. However, for Korean asbestos victims, it is a “monumental ruling,” according to Chung Suk-Ja of the Daegu Federation for the Environment. Like the discovery of the Sumner Simpson papers in a New Jersey office closet in 1977, this case has opened the way for numerous asbestos lawsuits in South Korea.

According to Chung, who is director of the Daegu Federation, there have been 46 asbestos-related deaths in South Korea over the past seven years. There are few asbestos regulations in South Korea, and as is the case in the U.S., asbestos has been used extensively in building materials over the past forty-five years or so. Attorney Li expressed hope that the “court ruling helps raise public awareness of the dangers from asbestos and prompts government authorities to take action.”