Japan court orders driving school to pay $21.5 billion to tsunami victims

Japan court orders driving school to pay $21.5 billion to tsunami victims

SENDAI - The Sendai District Court on Tuesday ordered a driving school in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, to pay ¥1.91 billion (S$21.5 billion) in compensation to the bereaved families of an employee and 25 students at the school who died in the March 11, 2011, tsunami, citing the school’s breach of its obligation to ensure safety.

Presiding Judge Kenji Takamiya said the Joban Yamamoto driving school could have predicted the arrival of tsunami as some instructors at the school had heard the evacuation warning.

Among lawsuits filed against operators of facilities where many people died in tsunami, which was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, the suit filed against the Joban Yamamoto driving school was the second in which a court acknowledged a legal responsibility of an operator, according to a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

In September 2013, the court ordered Hiyori Kindergarten in Ishinomaki in the prefecture and its former principal to pay ¥177 million in compensation to the bereaved families of four children killed by tsunami. The kindergarten and plaintiffs later reached a court-mediated settlement at the Sendai High Court.

The lawsuit against the Joban Yamamoto driving school was filed by the bereaved families of 25 students aged 18 and 19 and a female employee, then 27. The plaintiffs demanded the school pay ¥1.97 billion in damages.

According to the suit, 23 students were told by the school’s instructors and other staff to stay at the school after the earthquake hit on March 11, 2011. About an hour later, they were heading home in four of the school’s buses when they were engulfed by tsunami at about 3:50 p.m. near the school.

When the earthquake hit, two other students were taking a driving lesson, and their instructors then drove them back to the school. The two were swept away by tsunami while they were walking home. The female employee stayed at the school.

The plaintiffs had insisted the school could have predicted the arrival of tsunami because of the strong shaking of the earthquake, the announcement by fire stations and others that a major tsunami warning had been issued, as well as media reports. They had asserted that the school committed a breach of obligation to ensure safety, saying it “unthinkingly had the students stay” at the school.

The school, meanwhile, insisted it was not in a position to have students evacuate from tsunami because lessons ended or were suspended. The school also said the female employee could have evacuated on her own.

In the ruling, Takamiya said, “It can be presumed that some instructors heard a fire truck from a fire station, which was running in front of the school, calling for everyone to evacuate to a nearby middle school.

“The school was obliged to have the students and others evacuate by not ignoring this,” the ruling said.

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