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High Court to Review Law Allowing Slave Labor Suits

May 01, 2003|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to review the validity of a state law allowing people to sue companies that forced them into slave labor during World War II.

The justices, without comment, decided at the court's weekly private conference to examine a January decision by a Los Angeles appeals court that allowed a Korean American man to sue the former Onoda Cement Co. and its successor, Taiheiyo Cement Corp. of Japan, which has a Los Angeles-based subsidiary. Jae Wan Jeong is seeking back wages, unspecified damages, an apology and establishment of a trust fund to benefit victims of forced labor.

Jeong, a Los Angeles resident, alleges that as a Korean student at Tokyo's Hosei University, he was taken away in 1943 and forced to break limestone for Onoda for more than a year without pay. He was not provided adequate food, water and safety, and about 30 prisoners in his group died, according to the lawsuit.

At issue is a 1999 California law that permits people who contend they were victims of wartime forced labor in Europe and Asia to seek redress until 2010 against multinational firms that operate in the state.

Since the California Legislature adopted the law, hundreds of such lawsuits have been dismissed by federal and state judges. Jeong's is the only one that has been allowed to proceed to trial. The justices' action Wednesday stays Jeong's case pending a decision.

In January, meanwhile, a federal appeals court dismissed hundreds of cases brought by World War II prisoners of war who alleged they were enslaved by Japanese and German companies.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that peace treaties signed by the United States barred prisoners from seeking restitution in federal court from companies accused of forcing them to work in mines, dig roads and perform other duties more than 50 years ago.

But the California Supreme Court is not bound by that decision and could allow former slaves to sue in state courts.

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