The Kobe District Court on Jan. 11 acquitted Masao Yamazaki , a former president of West Japan Railway Co. who was accused of professional negligence in connection with the deaths of 106 people in a train crash on the Takarazuka Line in 2005.
Despite the outcome, the court said JR West’s safety efforts didn’t measure up to the standards expected of a railway company in certain aspects.
It said an organization’s responsibility is not the same as an individual’s criminal liability. For this reason, it found Yamazaki not guilty on grounds he was unable to predict the danger.
Criminal trials of professional negligence cases in Japan are not designed to make a judgment on the criminal liability of companies.
While acknowledging the limitations of such trials, the district court nevertheless was critical of JR West’s efforts for preventing accidents.
The accident occurred because the driver drove into a sharp curve at well beyond the speed limit.
The driver was killed. The indictment of the former president was unusual because criminal charges are rarely brought against a senior official of a railway company when an accident occurs.
The accident might not have happened if a safety device called the Automatic Train Stop system, or ATS, had been installed at the site. The track at the location of the accident was reshaped in 1996 to form a much tighter curve with the radius reduced by nearly half. At the same time, the number of trains that negotiated the curve was increased.
Prosecutors said Yamazaki, who was a director responsible for safety at that time, was professionally negligent because he failed to order the installment of an ATS at the location despite a higher likelihood of accidents.
In indicting Yamazaki, prosecutors effectively tried to expand the definition of professional negligence. Their case was based on the argument that the former JR West chief was guilty of negligence because he must have been aware that human error could lead to a serious accident at the site.
But the ruling cleared him of the charge by pointing out that railway operators back then didn’t make decisions on the installation of ATS devices by evaluating the risks of accidents for individual curves. There were other similarly sharp curves and, the ruling said, there were no reasons to single out the curve where the disaster occurred as especially dangerous.
The decision was in line with the general principle that a charge of professional negligence won't stand up to scrutiny unless the defendant was clearly aware of specific risks.
During the trial, in which victims or their bereaved families were allowed to take part, investigators’ records of oral statements by JR West executives to the victims were disclosed. Also, bereft families of those killed in the accident were given an opportunity to pose questions directly to Yamazaki.
In all likelihood, the families are probably dissatisfied with the court’s decision.
That’s because a punitive training program for drivers adopted by the company was cited as one of the factors behind the tragedy. The revelations about this program raised many questions about the company’s corporate culture, which clearly put higher priority on profits than on investments for safety.
In fact, JR West has been found to have tried to influence the opinions of members of the government’s Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission, which looked into the train disaster.
The company was also suspected of trying to conceal evidence as it failed to submit internal documents to the Hyogo prefectural police department.
JR West should not take the court ruling as a legal victory that clears its name. Instead, the company should take the ruling as a signal to step up its commitment to safety.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 12
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