SENDAI – The Sendai District Court on Tuesday ordered a kindergarten in Miyagi Prefecture to pay ¥177 million in damages over the deaths of four children in a school bus that was swamped by the March 11, 2011, tsunami as it was being driven toward lower ground.
It was the first ruling on a damages suit filed by families of tsunami victims against operators of facilities in 3/11 disaster areas. It could affect at least eight other similar damages suits filed by victims’ relatives.
The ruling focused on whether the kindergarten, as an institution with a responsibility to protect the lives of children, could have foreseen the risks of tsunami and whether it took appropriate measures to avert those risks.
The plaintiffs had sought ¥267 million, insisting the kindergarten should have considered the danger as it had been violently rocked by the preceding earthquake.
The privately run kindergarten had maintained that it was impossible for the facility to foresee a tsunami of that scale, saying the disaster was the largest in 1,000 years.
Presiding Judge Norio Saiki said the kindergarten “could have easily predicted that a massive tsunami would arrive” in the area and its principal was negligent for failing to collect information on the disaster. He ordered the kindergarten to pay damages to the plaintiffs — the families of four of the five children killed in tsunami.
Saiki said the principal and other kindergarten staff “should have concretely foreseen a natural disaster, and protected pupils whose abilities to predict the danger were underdeveloped.”
He ruled the children’s deaths were the result of the kindergarten’s misjudgment in sending the bus toward lowland.
Five children and a female employee died when the shuttle bus they were in was engulfed after leaving the Hiyori kindergarten, located on a hill 23 meters above sea level in Ishinomaki, and heading for the coast.
Seven other children had gotten off the bus earlier. The driver was swept away but survived. The bus left the kindergarten about 10 minutes after the temblor hit the area and the principal ordered the children sent home.
The families said the bus drove toward the coast after failing to collect information on the tsunami. Staff at the facility had not been fully informed about anti-disaster guidelines and had not conducted any tsunami drills, according to the plaintiffs.
The kindergarten had said its staff could not hear a tsunami warning as they were busy attending to children following the quake. It also denied negligence, saying the facility was not legally obliged to conduct drills on the delivery of children to parents following a disaster.
After learning about the tsunami warning some time later, however, the principal ordered the bus to return to the kindergarten, but by then the bus, with the five remaining children on board, was caught in traffic and engulfed by the giant tsunami some 700 meters from the coast, according to the ruling.
As the kindergarten itself was safe from tsunami, plaintiffs had argued that the children could have been saved if they had stayed there, instead of being sent home by bus.
Yasushi Saijo, 45, one of the plaintiffs who lost his 6-year-old daughter, Harune, told reporters he was glad the court backed the families’ claim. A relative of another 6-year-old victim, Asuka Sasaki, said the ruling was “a blessed relief.”
The kindergarten said the ruling was “unexpected” and that it was sorry the court had rejected its arguments. Regardless of the court decision, staff remain sorrowful about the children’s loss of life and continue to pray for them, it said.