Two US Firms Ordered to Pay $62 Million in Medical Compensation
By Kim Tong-hyung, The Korea Times
Photo/Yonhap: Korean war veterans, who fought in the 1965-1973 Vietnam War, react after the Seoul High Court ruled that two U.S. makers of the herbicide Agent Orange should pay compensation to Korean victims, in front of the court building in Socho-dong, southern Seoul.
A Seoul court ruled on Thursday that two U.S. manufacturers of the defoliant Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used during the Vietnam War, should pay compensation to Korean war veterans and their families for medical damages.
It is the first time that a local court ruled in favor of Vietnam veterans who suffered from cancer and other latent diseases believed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange, which could open new possibilities for lawsuits against U.S. chemical companies that manufactured them.
The Seoul High Court ordered Dow Chemical and Monsanto to pay 63 billion won ($62 million) to 6,795 people who were among the 20,000 war veterans who filed lawsuits against the U.S. companies in 1999.
Under the court ruling, the two companies will have to pay 6 million won to 46 million won to each of the plaintiffs depending on their medical conditions.
“The Agent Orange products manufactured by the defendants contained dioxin levels higher than standard, proving that the defendants failed to ensure safety regarding the use of its products,’’ the court said in its ruling.
The court associated 11 types of medical conditions _ including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer and diabetes among others _ with Agent Orange, which contains a high-level of dioxin, a toxic group of chemicals that are known to cause birth defects, skin disease and cancer.
However, for illnesses such as Buerger’s disease and peripheral neuropathy, the court said it did not have enough evidence to prove they were linked to exposure to Agent Orange.
The appellate court overturned a decision made by a lower court in 2002, which ruled in favor of the U.S. companies, saying that it was hard to prove that the plaintiffs’ illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Korea sent more than 320,000 troops to Vietnam to fight alongside the United States against the North Vietnamese communist forces during the 1965-73 war, accounting for the largest outside contribution.
According to U.S. government records, the American army used more than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange to spray around Vietnam’s battlegrounds from 1962 to 1971, hoping to destroy forest cover and undergrowth that shielded enemy troops from view.
War veterans from Korea, the U.S. and Vietnam, along with a large number of civilians, have claimed they have been suffering from severe medical effects caused by the exposure to Agent Orange.
According to the Ministry of Patriots and Veteran Affairs, there are more than 131,000 Koreans who claim they have suffered from illnesses associated with Agent Orange.
Although the ruling was hailed as a landmark victory for Korean war veterans, it is still not certain whether they will actually receive payment from the U.S. companies.
As both U.S. companies have no listed property in Korea it means there is little Korean authorities can do should they refuse to abide by the court ruling.
If the U.S. companies refuse to pay the plaintiffs, the Korean war veterans will have to take their legal battle to a U.S. court for possible compensation.