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Imamura v. General Electric Co.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 8, 2019

GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, and DOES 1-100, inclusive, Defendants.




         Plaintiffs, four individuals and six business entities from Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, bring this proposed class action against Defendant General Electric Co. (“GE”) seeking monetary damages for property damage and economic harm caused by the tragic 2011 tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (“FNPP”). Plaintiffs sue individually and on behalf of putative classes of over 150, 000 citizens and hundreds of businesses that suffered property damage or economic injury as a result of the FNPP disaster. They seek both compensatory and punitive damages. Plaintiffs allege that GE negligently designed the FNPP's nuclear reactors and safety mechanisms. GE has moved to dismiss this lawsuit on a number of grounds, including forum non conveniens. Because Plaintiffs have an adequate remedy for their injuries in Japan and trial in Massachusetts would be overly burdensome for the parties and the Court, the Court ALLOWS GE's motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens (Docket No. 38).


         As required on a motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens, the following factual background is drawn from the amended complaint. See Vivendi SA v. T-Mobile USA Inc., 586 F.3d 689, 691 n.3 (9th Cir. 2009); Aguas Lenders Recovery Grp. LLC v. Suez, S.A., 585 F.3d 696, 697 (2d Cir. 2009).

         I. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (“FNPP”)

         The FNPP was built for the Tokyo Electric Power Company (“TEPCO”) in Fukushima Prefecture in Japan in the late 1960s. The FNPP contains six boiling water reactors, all of which were designed by GE. GE constructed Units 1, 2, and 6 and provided expertise and the designs for Units 3, 4, and 5, which were built by Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. GE also designed the rest of the facility and has participated in regular maintenance ever since.

         Plaintiffs allege many problems with GE's design of the plant, including 1) lowering the bluff over the ocean where the plant was built by twenty-five meters to reduce costs; 2) placing the emergency generators and seawater pumps in the basement of the turbine building without protection against flooding; 3) not ensuring a backup power source in case the generators failed; and 4) not including space to accommodate sufficient emergency equipment. These design issues were especially problematic given the region's well-known history of tsunamis, including a 38.2-meter wave that killed 27, 000 people in 1896 and a 28.7-meter wave that killed 3, 000 people in 1933.

         II. 2011 Tsunami and Meltdown

         On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan. The FNPP's nuclear reactors shut down automatically, and control rods were inserted into the core to stop the nuclear reactions. The plant disconnected from the power grid, but the diesel backup generators continued to run the cooling systems. Within an hour, a 45-foot tsunami triggered by the earthquake reached shore, flooded the plant, disabled the generators, and destroyed the emergency cooling pumps. Government authorities soon began evacuating neighboring communities.

         Without power, the plant's cooling systems could not function properly. As the coolant and water levels dropped in the reactors, the nuclear cores began to heat up and melt down. The melting released hydrogen gas, which further increased the heat and pressure. The operators of the plant considered opening vents to relieve the heat and pressure, but there was no mechanism to filter out radioactive material and the neighboring communities had not yet been fully evacuated. Hydrogen gas continued to accumulate within the reactors, and Units 1, 3, and 4 all exploded over the next four days. The explosions released dangerous radioactive materials into the environment. Plaintiffs allege that GE's problematic design of the plant and reactors caused the nuclear explosions.

         III. Aftermath of the Disaster

         Fukushima Prefecture suffered immense damage from the disaster. Many of the citizens who were evacuated from the surrounding communities lost their homes, land, and jobs. Much of the area around the FNPP remans uninhabitable today due to the risk of exposure to radioactive materials. Even some property outside the evacuation zone sustained damages from radioactive ash.

         The disaster wiped out Fukushima Prefecture's well-known tourist and agriculture industries. Hotels, golf courses, and other tourist attractions in and around the evacuation zone are still unusable. The region used to grow many agriculture products, but it is now unsafe to consume any food from the region. Radioactive discharge also continues to flow into the Pacific Ocean and contaminate the local fish stock.

         The disaster forced more than 1, 700 companies to close. Some business properties are covered in radioactive waste, and the remediation measures required to reopen are extremely expensive. Other business, such as privately owned hospitals, medical and dental clinics, restaurants, and educational facilities, had to close because they had no customers. Much of the infrastructure in and around the evacuation area has not been repaired, including government buildings, sidewalks, roads, sewers, schools, hospitals, and roads.

         IV. Japanese Compensation System

         Under the Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage (“the Act”), only TEPCO is liable for damages arising from the FNPP disaster. No. other entity or individual involved in the construction or operation of the FNPP plant or the response to the disaster is required to provide compensation to victims. The Act creates strict liability for TEPCO, so claimants must only prove causation and damages to secure compensation. TEPCO is liable for all damages proximately caused by the FNPP disaster. The statute of limitations for claims against TEPCO is ten years. There is no cap on TEPCO's overall liability.

         Victims may pursue compensation from TEPCO via three methods: 1) submission of direct claims to TEPCO; 2) mediation of claims against TEPCO through the Nuclear Damage Claim Dispute Resolution Center (“ADR Center”); and 3) lawsuits against TEPCO. These avenues for compensation are not mutually exclusive: for example, a victim may file an administrative claim and then initiate a lawsuit if she is unsatisfied with her compensation.

         A victim seeking compensation directly from TEPCO submits a standard form with evidence of her loss. TEPCO reviews the form and pays the victim based on its uniform guidelines. Among other forms of damages, TEPCO's guidelines call for compensation to businesses for reputational harm and loss of sales. Over two million victims have filed claims directly with TEPCO.

         The ADR Center is a public mediation service under the supervision of the Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation (“DRC”). The ADR Center is overseen by a three-member committee comprised of two independent lawyers and a law professor. A victim may file a claim with the ADR Center in addition to, or as an alternative to, a direct claim with TEPCO. The DRC has issued a number of guidelines for compensation for the FNPP disaster. Although these guidelines do not have the force of law, they provide the framework for mediations through the ADR Center. The guidelines provide for compensation for lost real estate value and business interruption damages, including “rumor damages” for businesses in certain industries that are subject to customer concerns about radioactive contamination. There is no filing fee for submitting a claim to the ADR Center, and claimants can proceed pro se or with an attorney. The mediations are supervised by attorneys. As of February 1, 2019, claimants have filed 24, 426 cases with the ADR Center, 18, 890 of which have resulted in settlements.

         Because the claims process with TEPCO and through the ADR Center is confidential, there is little publicly available information on the value of these settled claims. Settlements through the ADR Center appear to vary widely. Certain claimants, including some who reside outside the designated evacuation zones, have received nothing from TEPCO. Others have received as little as two-and-a-half percent of the damages sought. On the other hand, TEPCO has agreed to pay a number of businesses more than $500, 000 for property damage and business losses.

         A victim may file a lawsuit against TEPCO right away or after receiving an unsatisfactory settlement through these other mechanisms. Japanese law recognizes tort causes of action and awards damages for harm to property and business losses. Although there is no mechanism under Japanese law to file a class action for claims arising from a nuclear disaster, multiple plaintiffs may join together in one lawsuit. In fact, a number of parties have already joined together in mass actions against TEPCO. To file a lawsuit, a plaintiff must pay a filing fee of no more than one percent of the value of the case. As of March 30, 2018, around 440 lawsuits had been filed against TEPCO, 50 of which ended with judgments and 110 with settlements.

         There is no comprehensive database of Japanese court judgments. Anecdotally, judgments in cases involving property damage and business losses have ranged from $182 to $658, 462 per plaintiff. To avoid double recovery, courts reduce their judgments to account for compensation the plaintiffs have received from TEPCO via other means.

         As of February 15, 2019, TEPCO has paid out more than $79 billion to business entities and individuals for losses arising from the FNPP disaster. Many of the claims have involved property damage and economic loss for business activities. To ensure that operators of nuclear plants like TEPCO have the money to pay claims, the Act requires that they carry insurance and enter into an indemnity agreement with the Japanese government. TEPCO has so far received $1.7 billion from the government through its indemnity agreement. Furthermore, after the FNPP disaster, the Japanese government set up the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning ...

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