| Hansen's patient wins 50 million yen|
First ruling to recognize malpractice at a sanitarium
The Tokyo District Court ordered the government Monday to pay 50 million yen in damages to a 66-year-old former Hansen's disease patient who said her condition worsened after receiving medical treatment at a sanitarium.
A former Hansen's disease patient addresses reporters after the Tokyo District Court ordered the government to pay her 50 million yen for malpractice.
It is the first court ruling to recognize medical malpractice at the government-run sanitariums, which were operated under a segregation policy.
According to the court, the woman, who has been using the pseudonym Misako Yamashita in the lawsuit process, was diagnosed with Hansen's disease in 1953. Although at one point she tested negative for the bacteria, her condition worsened in 1981.
For 11 years she received medical treatment -- mainly steroids and immunosuppressants -- at a sanitarium in Higashi-Murayama, western Tokyo. However, her condition failed to improve and the treatment instead left her with a disfigured face and hands and feet, and sensory damage, the court said.
In handing down the ruling, presiding Judge Yoichi Sato recognized negligence on the part of the doctors involved, saying the sanitarium's failure to conduct a swift bacteria test to check for a recurrence of the disease and administer medication properly "was tantamount to an abandoning of treatment."
The government argued that the treatment she was given was seen as appropriate at the time, and that the statute of limitations had run out because more than 10 years had passed since her chief doctor changed.
However, the judge said, "It is an abuse of authority for the state, which had monopolized medical treatment for Hansen's disease and made filing lawsuits difficult, to argue on the basis of the statute of limitations."
The court recognized the damages in the case as being worth roughly 76 million yen, and awarded the plaintiff the full amount she had sued for.
Sato said that the continued use of steroids had worsened the woman's condition and said the sanitarium had been lazy up until the woman got a new chief doctor in 1992. Had she received the proper medical care, the disease would not have progressed nor would she have suffered aftereffects, he said.
As for the fact that the sanitarium did not undertake treatment that used a cocktail of drugs to treat the malady, as was the norm in other countries at the time, the judge said, "The reason such doctors existed was because there was a stagnation in medicine as a result of the closed environment" in which they worked.
"It is a structural issue that had its roots in the Leprosy Prevention Law," which was abolished in 1996, he added.
Yamashita filed the lawsuit in June 2003. Although the condition of her illness improved after the doctor switch, she continues to go to the sanitarium for treatment for the aftereffects.
While she had suspected that the deterioration of her condition stemmed from the drugs she was being given, her doctor at the time brushed aside such questions, she said.
At the same time, she was afraid of the discrimination she might face if she tried to seek treatment at an outside medical facility, she added.
Even after filing the lawsuit, she said she was afraid that it might have a negative effect on her treatment, she said.
"All I wish for now is that things change so that (former patients) can spend their days recuperating in security," she told a news conference after the ruling.
The sensory damage has left her face virtually expressionless, but she said, "This just decision (by the court) will be a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life."
Her lawyers hailed the ruling as a "complete victory" that criticized Japan's Hansen's treatment itself, adding that the court's position regarding the statute of limitations carried great importance in the event of future lawsuits regarding malpractice.
Officials at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry expressed surprise at the ruling.
"The court's recognition that bringing up the issue of the statute of limitations being an 'abuse of authority' is especially harsh for the state," one official said.
The Japan Times: Feb. 1, 2005
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