Supreme Court sets precedents in RCA industrial pollution case

Taipei, The final judgment on the industrial pollution caused by Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in Taiwan set precedents for holding multinational conglomerates accountable for putting profits before employee safety and the environment, but there remain a few regrets, an attorney for the plaintiffs said Thursday.

Taiwan's Supreme Court accepted Thursday the four central arguments presented at the Taiwan High Court in October last year in favor of victims claiming compensation for health impairment caused by industrial pollution, "for which the court deserved praise," said Joseph Lin (???), a lawyer who represents former RCA workers.

RCA, the former American home appliance maker, operated three major plants in then Taoyuan County (now Taoyuan City), Chupei in Hsinchu County and Yilan County from 1970 to 1992, employing about 80,000 workers at its peak.

In 1986, it was taken over by American multinational conglomerate General Electric (GE) which sold it to Thomson Consumer Electronics in 1998, the U.S. subsidiary of the French Technicolor SA, before it moved production of electronic products to China. The new ruling finds RCA, its parent and successor corporations -- GE, Thomson, and Technicolor -- liable for those deaths and illnesses of workers that can be linked to their exposure to a mix of hazardous chemicals in the manufacturing process and the use of underground water contaminated by the dumping of toxic waste at its Taoyuan plant.

One of the arguments upheld by the court was the use of epidemiological and toxicological evidence in determining the health effects of chemical exposure, rather than the conventional approach that requires direct evidence linking cause and effect, Lin said.

Although this is not the first time causation of chemical exposure has been established by evidence from epidemiological or toxicological studies in Taiwan, it was still a rare decision in a Taiwanese case, as compared to other countries like the U.S. and Japan, he said.

In a sense, the RCA case was a "leading case" because the wide range of toxic chemicals and organic solvents involved that former RCA workers were exposed to, 31 of which were covered in the second and third rulings, is rarely seen internationally, Lin added.

The second major point was that the onus of proving causal connection was not placed entirely on the plaintiffs, but partially shifted to the defendants to disprove causation once the injured party has proved causation to a reasonable degree, Lin said.

In the final judgment, the Supreme Court said the counter-evidence presented by the defendants at the Taiwan High Court was insufficient to dismiss the causal link established by the plaintiffs between their injuries and the defendants' actions.

Lin also praised the court for "piercing the corporate veil" in this case to impose liability on GE, Thomson and Technicolor for the harm inflicted by RCA on its employees, referring to the legal principle that courts hold corporation's shareholders liable for the corporation's actions, which is also a rare application in a Taiwanese case.

The court's rejection of the defendant's core argument -- the lawsuit was filed outside the designated statute of limitations -- on the grounds that the delay was primarily caused by RCA withholding information represented another success, Lin said.

The court argued that the RCA could not use the statute of limitations as a legitimate defense because it refused to provide any information related to the chemicals it used in its production and disposal of industrial waste when Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) made the request in 1994 when the pollution was first brought to light.

That infringed the legal right of RCA workers to compensation because it hindered the epidemiology study for causation, the court said.

Based on the four arguments, the Supreme Court ordered the defendants to pay 262 former RCA workers who have since developed cancer or other illnesses and family members of some of the deceased workers about NT$500 million (US$16.07 million).

However, the court also asked Taiwan High Court to reconsider part of its ruling in October last year that awarded damages to 226 workers who have not developed diseases due to exposure to toxins but have suffered emotional distress.

Lin said he found the exclusion of the defendants' liability for cases in which exposure has not yet yielded perceptible symptoms regrettable.

There have been several precedents set by U.S. courts in pollution cases where awards were made to plaintiffs without perceptible symptoms, Lin said.

In such cases, the arguments accepted by U.S. courts included that latency periods can render chronic diseases caused by toxic exposure hard to diagnose in a timely fashion and that exposure increases the risk of cancer, Lin said.

Meanwhile, Lin added that the low level of compensation lacks any punitive effect. The plaintiffs had originally sought damages of NT$2.7 billion from RCA, GE, Thomson, and Technicolor, but the high court awarded only NT$700 million.

"It takes a multinational conglomerate like GE just six hours to make profit of NT$700 million," Lin said, urging the defendants to face up to their responsibilities for the injustice done to the workers.

The RCA case ruling can serve as a template for future litigation seeking redress for damage to lives and the environment by companies breaking the law in pursuit of profit, Lin said.

According to the workers, from 1992 when RCA left Taiwan to 2004, when the group filed the class action lawsuit, more than 1,300 former RCA workers have been stricken with cancer, 221 of whom have died as a direct result.

In 1998, the EPA designated the 7.2-hectare site of RCA's former Taoyuan factory a permanently polluted zone, the first case of its kind in the country.

Cleanup work at the site is currently ongoing.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel