/

Kindergartners’ tsunami deaths hearing begins

Kyodo

Oral proceedings started Friday at the Sendai High Court in an appeal filed by a school against damages it was ordered to pay in connection with the March 11, 2011, tsunami deaths of four pupils aboard one of its buses, and both sides also agreed to pursue settlement negotiations.

The privately run Hiyori kindergarten in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, was ordered last Sept. 17 by the Sendai District Court to pay ¥177 million in redress for negligence for sending the bus through a low-lying area not long after the 9-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake hit. Tsunami killed five pupils and a female employee of the school aboard the bus.

The bus had taken seven pupils to safe locations and, unable to find the families of the other five aboard, had been told to return to the school due to tsunami fears. The waves hit while it was stuck in traffic.

The district court ruled the deaths of the six aboard the bus resulted from the kindergarten’s misjudgment in ordering the vehicle to return to the school, which sits on a hill 23 meters above sea level. The kindergarten is currently closed.

The plaintiffs, relatives of four of the five child fatalities, initially sought ¥267 million in the district court.

The kindergarten argued Friday that “it was impossible to predict tsunami of such an unprecedented scale.” It also denied being negligent, reiterating its claim that after the temblor struck, staff were busy trying to protect the children.

The kindergarten demanded that the high court overturn the ¥177 million in damages it has been ordered to pay.

The victims’ relatives, meanwhile, demanded the court reject the school’s appeal, claiming in a statement that “the court’s decision is unjustifiable as the kindergarten is apparently trying to avoid its legal responsibility.”

“I have the impression that this will start all over,” one of the plaintiffs said after the oral proceedings.

In the lawsuit filed by relatives of the four children, the district court ruled that the kindergarten could have easily predicted that massive tsunami would strike.

According to the district court, the principal, after the quake struck, ordered the kids sent home and sent the shuttle bus carrying them toward low-lying land.

After hearing the tsunami warning, the principle ordered the bus to return to the kindergarten.

The bus, by that time caught in traffic about 700 meters from the coast, was engulfed and swept away by massive tsunami. Besides the driver, five children and a female employee were on board. The driver survived but the woman was never found.