An increasing number of lawsuits have been filed across Japan against department stores that allowed unusual purchases to be made by elderly people with dementia.
In April, the Tokyo District Court ordered a Tokyo department store to refund to a woman about 2.4 million yen (about $25,300) for clothes she bought over one year, during a 4 1/2-year period in which she bought a total of about 11 million yen in such products.
The ruling recognized that some of the sales agreements between the 78-year-old woman and the store were made after she developed dementia.
The woman, who lives alone in Tokyo, filed the lawsuit against Tokyu department store's Toyoko store at JR Shibuya Station in Tokyo. She bought 280 clothing items at a boutique in the store since 2006.
Her 70-year-old brother, who lives separately from her, said he realized something was wrong when he saw her wearing an odd combination of a jacket and skirt at their relative's funeral in June 2010. He then visited her home and found a room full of unopened shirts and jackets. "I was totally taken back to see that," he said.
In August that year, a hospital diagnosed the woman as "suffering from Alzheimers-related dementia," according to the hospital. "It's believed she started showing symptoms about five years ago."
Although the brother explained her condition to the department store, and asked them to stop selling her products, they ignored his request. He became her guardian in May 2011 and filed a lawsuit against the store in February 2012, seeking about 11 million yen.
According to evidence submitted to the court, the woman visited the store almost every week, buying such items as jackets and shirts. Some months she spent more than 500,000 yen, and she bought the same products several times.
She also bought health food worth 20,000 yen from a salesclerk, even though the product was unrelated to the boutique, according to evidence.
On April 26 this year, Judge Norio Kojima included in the ruling part of the demanded refund for all the products she bought. "The claim that she developed her dementia five years ago was a doctor's opinion, which is not definitive," he said.
However, he added, "Since August 2009 when she bought three of the same product, it was clear that she was suffering from dementia and unable to form rational judgments."
Kojima ordered the department store to refund about 2.4 million yen for clothes the woman bought over one year since August 2009. The sentence has since been finalized.
The younger brother said: "As my sister obviously purchased the clothes in an abnormal way, I'm sure shop clerks noticed that she had dementia."
Tokyu department store opposed the ruling, saying: "It's not unusual that customers of a boutique repeatedly buy expensive products. The refund we were ordered to give was for the period when we didn't know she had dementia," a store official said.
"We can't tell our customers, 'We're unable to sell you products because you have dementia.' However, we'll carefully handle such matters when we're asked not to sell products," the official added.
There have been similar cases across the country in which customers with dementia have made unusual purchases.
In 2005, an elderly woman with dementia bought kimonos and other clothing valued at about 6.4 million yen from a Osaka department store. She filed a lawsuit with the Osaka District Court, seeking a full refund.
In 2012, an elderly woman with dementia who bought about 18 million yen in clothing and other items filed a lawsuit against a department store in Hamamatsu. In both cases, the parties involved reached a settlement.
The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan said it had received inquiries in three other similar cases since 2011.
According to the Japan Department Stores Association, the industry has no standard guidelines on how to deal with customers that suffer from dementia. The association said while it realizes there is a problem, its hands are tied.
"If we decided not to sell products to people suffering from a certain disease, it would become a human rights issue. Our only choice is to sell products to customers who want to buy them," an association official said.
Yasuhiro Akanuma, a lawyer who is familiar with issues facing elderly people, said salesclerks should give consideration to people who make unusual purchases.
"People with dementia tend to frequently visit shops where they are treated nicely by clerks and end up purchasing unnecessary things. Salesclerks must realize eventually if a customer suffers dementia. However, I presume they give priority to sales, so they continue to sell them products," he said.
"If a person with dementia has an adult guardian, a sales contract can be canceled later even for expensive clothes. I want families involved to consider using the adult guardian system," he added.