JR West has obligation to adopt stringent, thorough safety steps
Even though former presidents of West Japan Railway Co. were not held criminally responsible for the fatal accident on the Fukuchiyama Line, the company cannot avoid its social responsibility as an operator of a public transportation system. JR West has to take stringent safety measures.
The Kobe District Court has found three former presidents of JR West, including Masataka Ide, not guilty of professional negligence causing death and injury in a train crash on the Fukuchiyama Line in April 2005 that killed 106 passengers.
Designated lawyers who served as public prosecutors hinted that they may appeal the ruling to a higher court.
After district public prosecutors decided in 2009 not to indict the three former presidents, a citizen inquest panel voted to indict them the following year.
The panel indicted them on the grounds that they failed to instruct their subordinates to install an automatic train stop (ATS) system to prevent accidents at the curve where the train derailed.
However, the district court ruled that “it was impossible for any of these senior executives to recognize the danger of the curve, as their subordinates had not provided explanations about it.” The court concluded, “They could not predict the accident in any concrete way.”
As there was no way to predict such an accident, which would be necessary to establish professional negligence resulting in death and injury, there was no other choice but to find them not guilty.
Prediction of crash difficult
In January last year, the not-guilty ruling handed down by the Kobe District Court on Masao Yamazaki, another former president and the only person indicted by the prosecutors over the accident, became final as the prosecution did not appeal.
Yamazaki was head of JR West’s train operations headquarters and in charge of safety measures at the time when the curve in question was made sharper.
It was found that it was impossible for even Yamazaki, who was in a position of direct responsibility back then, to have predicted the danger of an accident at the curve. It would, therefore, be even more difficult to hold the other three criminally responsible, as they held higher positions than Yamazaki at the time.
According to the Penal Code, criminal responsibility is applied to individuals, not business corporations. Taking into consideration that even a president, who represents a company, is no exception, a not-guilty ruling is unavoidable.
Yet, it is only natural for bereaved families of the victims of the accident to have reservations about the justice of the latest court decision.
After passing judgment, the presiding judge admitted, “It is only reasonable [for relatives of victims] to regard it as absurd that no one was held criminally responsible.”
It is an undeniable fact that the company’s failure to install the ATS system on the curve promptly enough led to the tragic accident. JR West has an obligation to adopt thorough safety measures by learning from the accident.
The latest acquittals may lead to arguments about whether indictments by citizen inquest panels work. Inquest panel decisions have led to eight criminal cases in courts since such decisions were made legally binding in 2009. But in only one case has a guilty verdict been handed down.
While the system is significant in reflecting views of ordinary people in criminal justice, a number of problems have emerged.
The burden on designated lawyers to prove a case with limited evidence is heavy. When a defendant is indicted by a citizen inquest panel, an enormous amount of time is needed in preparing for a trial.
We hope the Justice Ministry will examine past cases closely to improve the current system.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 30, 2013)