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Top court orders Oxy to compensate indirect victim of toxic humidifier sterilizerBy Son Ji-hyoung
Published : Nov. 9, 2023 - 12:20
South Korea's top court on Thursday ordered Oxy Reckitt Benckiser and a Korean vendor to pay 5 million won ($3,820) in damages to a woman who developed a pulmonary disease after using Oxy's toxic humidifier sterilizer, but whose illness was seen as being less likely associated with the product.
The Supreme Court of Korea upheld the decision at the appellate court that found Oxy -- a Korean arm of United Kingdom-based consumer goods maker Reckitt Benckiser -- liable for violating the Product Liability Act by touting the product's safety despite its chances of harming the human body.
It was the first civil court verdict here regarding the lung disease outbreak due to humidifier disinfectant products that have killed scores of people since the scandal first came to light in 2011. Oxy's executives have been found guilty, including former Oxy chief Shin Hyun-woo, who was given six years in 2018 for professional negligence.
The woman, surnamed Kim, was classified as a "third-degree victim" in 2014, out of the four-tier system that gauged the likelihood of their diseases being caused by the disinfectants, with the first degree denoting the highest relevance. Kim was thereby not subject to compensation, until the revision of the law in 2020.
Kim used Oxy's humidifier disinfectant containing polyhexamethylene guanidine hydrochloride -- a toxic substance -- from 2007 to 2011. She was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease in 2013 and the cause of her illness remained unknown.
Kim sought 20 million won in February 2015 against Oxy. A district court in Suwon found Oxy not responsible for any damage in December 2015, but in 2019 an appeals court ordered Oxy and its vendor to pay 5 million won.
Lee Jung-il, an attorney at law firm Donghwa representing the victim, told reporters the ruling will "open the way for other victims (in similar circumstances) to get compensated for, if the company behind the harmful products fails to prove that there were other cause for the sterilizer users' health damage than its product."
As of August, about 64 percent of 7,859 people who sought compensation were recognized as victims of the outbreak, according to civic group Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health. The group put the number of deaths linked to Oxy's humidifier disinfectant at at least 1,800 in Korea.
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