MMC defect-aware execs guilty of negligence but avoid prison

Kyodo

The Yokohama District Court handed suspended prison terms Thursday to two former senior officials of Mitsubishi Motors Corp. for neglecting to take action to prevent a defect-linked accident in Yokohama in 2002 that killed a woman and injured her two sons.

Presiding Judge Nobuyuki Kiguchi found Hiroshi Murakawa, 61, former head of the automaker’s quality control department, and Hirotoshi Miki, 59, former group leader at the department, guilty of negligence resulting in death and injury, and sentenced them each to 18 months in prison, suspended for three years.

“The defendants caused the accident to occur by failing to recall the products and unthinkingly neglected the situation when they could have readily anticipated that the wheel hubs were not strong enough,” the judge said.

In the accident in Yokohama’s Seya Ward on Jan. 10, 2002, Shiho Okamoto, 29, was killed and her two sons injured when they were hit by a wheel that had come off a large truck made by MMC.

The front wheel rolled about 50 meters down a slope before hitting the victims.

A subsequent investigation determined the hub was fractured, causing the wheel to come off.

Both Murakawa and Miki had pleaded not guilty, claiming the automaker at the time blamed the problem of broken hubs on poor maintenance work, not defects. The defendants also contended they lacked the authority to launch a truck recall.

Prosecutors had sought two years imprisonment for Murakawa and 18 months for Miki, arguing both failed to take action to prevent the accident while knowing the wheel hubs lacked strength.

The Yokohama fatality led to the indictment of Mitsubishi Motors as a corporate defendant and three of its former senior officials for allegedly submitting a false report on the defective hubs in order to avoid a vehicle recall.

The Yokohama Summary Court acquitted the defendants last December, prompting prosecutors to appeal to the Tokyo High Court.

Among the three individual defendants was Takashi Usami, 67, a former chairman of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Corp., which was spun off from Mitsubishi Motors in January 2003 and is currently 85 percent owned by German automaker Daimler AG.

It was not until March 2004 — two years and two months after the fatal accident — that Mitsubishi Fuso launched a recall of the defective hubs.

The number of problems involving fractured wheel hubs involving MMC trucks topped 40 as of January 2002, including the Yokohama accident.

In a suit over the accident, the Yokohama District Court ordered MMC in April 2006 to pay ¥5.5 million to Okamoto’s mother, Yoko Masuda, 58, recognizing that the wheel hubs were defective.

But the court rejected the plaintiff’s demand that punitive damages of ¥160 million be imposed on Mitsubishi Motors Corp. for its failure to fix the defects. The decision was upheld by the Tokyo High Court and then by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the Yokohama District Court will rule on Jan. 16 in the case of former Mitsubishi Motors Corp. President Katsuhiko Kawasoe, who has been charged with negligence over a separate fatal truck accident in 2002 involving a defective clutch.