Court Upholds Suits by WWII Slave Laborers

Times Staff Writer

A state appeals court on Wednesday upheld the constitutionality of a California law that allows World War II victims of forced labor in foreign countries to sue for compensation in state court.

The ruling by a three-judge panel conflicts with a decision by a federal judge who found that the law infringes on the U.S. government’s exclusive power over foreign affairs.

Barry A. Fisher, a Century City attorney who has represented plaintiffs in a number of slave labor lawsuits, called the ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal a major victory.


But Fisher acknowledged that the legal battle probably would continue with appeals to the California and possibly the U.S. supreme courts. Opposing lawyers could not be reached for comment.

The state appellate court case grew out of a lawsuit that Fisher filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Jae-Won Jeong, an 80-year-old Koreatown resident.

In 1943, while living in Japanese-occupied Korea, Jeong was put into a forced labor camp. There, he said, he broke limestone by hand at a quarry operated for Japan’s Onoda Cement Manufacturing Co.

Now a U.S. citizen, Jeong sued Onoda’s successor, Taiheiyo Cement Corp., under a 1999 California law allowing victims to recover wages and damages from foreign companies that used them as forced laborers, provided those companies are doing business here. Taiheiyo has a subsidiary in California.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman rejected a motion by Taiheiyo to dismiss the lawsuit, setting the stage for an appeal.

Taiheiyo’s attorneys, supported by lawyers representing other Japanese companies and the U.S. Justice Department, contended that Jeong’s claims were barred under the 1951 peace treaty between the United States and Japan.


The cement company also argued that its rights to due process were violated because it was being forced to defend itself against claims dating back more than half a century.

The California law extends the statute of limitations on such suits to 2010.

In a 33-page opinion, the appellate court rejected both arguments. Analyzing the U.S.-Japan peace treaty, the judges said they could find nothing in the document that prohibits claims by private citizens against private Japanese companies.

The court also dismissed the claim that the law violated the company’s due-process rights. The statute, it said, “validly extends the statute of limitations that would otherwise bar claims for unpaid labor and personal injuries suffered by slave or forced labor victims.”

The ruling means that Jeong can proceed with his Superior Court lawsuit, barring a further appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Jeong said Wednesday through an interpreter that he never doubted he would be allowed to proceed.

“It’s going to take a long time, and eventually justice will prevail,” he said. “I’m hoping that my case finally gets some resolution before the day I die.”


In the meantime, supporters and opponents are awaiting a ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the law’s constitutionality.