Thursday, May 1, 2003
S.C. to Review World War II-Era Slave Labor Compensation Cases
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether Korean nationals and American prisoners of war forced to labor for Japanese firms during World War II may sue for compensation under California law.
At their weekly conference, the justices voted unanimously to grant review in Mitsubishi Materials Corp. v. Superior Court (2003) 106 Cal.App.4th 39 and Taiheiyo Cement Corp. v. Superior Court (2003) 129 Cal.Rptr.2d 451.
At issue in both cases is whether Civil Code Sec. 354.6 conflicts with the federal government’s power to wage war and conduct foreign affairs, or is preempted by treaties or federal statutes.
The appellate panels that heard the two cases reached conflicting conclusions.
In Taiheiyo, this district’s Div. Eight said the class of Korean nationals could sue. In Mitsubishi, the Fourth District’s Div. Three said the POWs could not.
Sec. 354.6, enacted in 1999, provides:
“Any Second World War slave labor victim, or heir of a Second World War slave labor victim, Second World War forced labor victim, or heir of a Second World War forced labor victim, may bring an action to recover compensation for labor performed as a Second World War slave labor victim or Second World War forced labor victim from any entity or successor in interest thereof, for whom that labor was performed, either directly or through a subsidiary or affiliate.”
The statute applies to conduct occurring between 1929 and 1945, revives and extends applicable statutes of limitations through 2010, and allows suit to be brought against any defendant subject to California’s jurisdiction.
The law has been challenged in federal court, as well as in the Orange and Los Angeles Superior Court cases. A Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in January that the law violates the war power.
The cases pit the U.S. Department of Justice, which contends that the law is unconstitutional, against California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who has defended the legislation.
Stay Left in Place
In yesterday’s order, the high court said it would hear both the Korean and POW cases, and would leave in place a stay that bars the trial court from proceeding with the Taiyeho case, which was brought by Jae Won Jeong, now a U.S. citizen living in California. Taiheiyo Cement Corporation and three California subsidiaries of the huge Japanese firm sought a writ of mandate after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman denied two motions for judgment on the pleadings.
Jeong claims that after he refused to join the Japanese military, he was seized and taken to a labor camp in Korea run by Onoda Cement Co., Ltd., which was later merged into Taiheiyo. He and other Koreans, he alleges, were tortured there and forced to work for the Japanese war effort.
Taiheyo argues that the suit is barred by the war and foreign affairs powers generally, and more specifically by the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan, and a 1965 agreement between Japan and Korea.
But Div. Eight, in an opinion by Justice Paul Boland, said that because Korea did not sign the 1951 Treaty of Peace, sometimes referred to as the San Francisco treaty, Korean nationals need not rely on the “special arrangements” that the treaty calls for in order to resolve post-war claims by Korean nationals and entities against Japan.
Boland also reasoned that the law does not interfere with the federal government’s power over foreign affairs, because it is essentially a procedural statute designed to allow venue in California courts. Any impact on foreign relations, he said, is “incidental or indirect.”
Barred by Treaty
In Mitsubishi, however, Presiding Justice David K. Sills said that the POW claims were barred by the San Francisco treaty. He cited Article 14(b) of the treaty, which holds that except as specifically provided in the treaty, the allies “waive all reparations claims of...their nationals arising out of any actions taken by Japan and its nationals in the course of the prosecution of the war.”
Sills rejected the argument that the treaty only protects the Japanese government and leaves private firms open to suit. A key purpose of the waiver clause, Sills explained, was to enable Japan to rebuild its war-ravaged economy.
While the administration was well aware of the “heinous” treatment of POWs by Japan, the jurist said, it also recognized that a revival of the Japanese nation would be in the best interests of the United States. A “special impetus” for the treaty was the Korean War, Sills explained, and the government believed that Japan would stand as a bulwark against Communism if it were not subject to “ruinous” war reparations.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company