OSAKA — The Osaka District Court ordered West Japan Railway Co. and Shigaraki Kogen Railway Co. to pay 501 million yen in damages Monday to the next of kin of nine people killed in a 1991 Shigaraki head-on train collision that claimed 42 lives and left 614 people injured.
Judge Jun Miura said JR West shared the blame for the accident with Shigaraki Railway because it should have taken measures to protect its trains and officials even when operating on a non-JR line.
The May 14, 1991, head-on collision between a Shigaraki Kogen train and a JR West train occurred on single track on the Shigaraki Line between Kibugawa and Shigaraki stations, in Shigaraki, Shiga Prefecture. The 14.7-km section belongs to Shigaraki Kogen, but JR West was running special trains on the line to carry people to a world ceramic festival in Shigaraki.
The collision occurred after the Shigaraki Railway train, which reportedly had right of way, departed Shigaraki Station despite a red signal, which was malfunctioning. Operators assumed another signal farther down the line would display red to alert the oncoming JR train to stop.
However, because Shigaraki Railway was engaged in repairs, the signal for the JR train at a siding at Onodani, between Kibugawa and Shigaraki, was green. The JR train was supposed to wait for the oncoming train there, but instead it proceeded on signal indication.
The district court ruled that the signal malfunction for the Shigaraki train was caused by a device installed by JR West in Mie Prefecture to control signals at Kibugawa Station. The court said JR West officials could have predicted a signal failure after two signal problems occurred in April 1991 and another on May 3, 1991.
Shigaraki Railway has admitted its responsibility in the accident, while JR West has maintained the installation work had nothing to do with the accident, blaming the other train for illegally proceeding on a red signal.
The motorman of the JR West train, who survived the accident, was also to blame because the driver must take maximum precautions, the court said. The court also found JR West negligent in training its employees and in establishing a communications system to gauge the safety of train operations.
Plaintiffs filed the suit demanding 1.1 billion yen in damages against the two railways in October 1993, after the Otsu District Public Prosecutor’s Office dropped criminal charges against the JR West officials. Relatives of the other victims have accepted offers from the two carriers to settle out of court.
Two former Shigaraki Railway officials and a signal company employee, who was working for the carrier at the time of crash, have been on trial before the Otsu District Court, charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury.
Yasumichi Kokufu, chief attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday’s ruling was acceptable because it answered the feelings of the next of kin, who had no choice but to sue JR West because they never received an apology from the carrier or a convincing explanation as to the cause of the accident. “The ruling condemned JR West for neglecting to ensure safety. (We) request that the railway reconsider the problems pointed out in the ruling and apologize to the families,” Kokufu said.
JR West officials said it is regrettable their claims were not recognized by the court and added the carrier will decide whether to appeal after examining the ruling. Keiichi Kitagawa, president of Shigaraki Railway, reckoned, “The ruling was meaningful because the court understood our claim that a head-on collision cannot happen without another party.”
The Shigaraki officials, who have already admitted responsibility, accused JR West in court with trying to lay all the blame on their side.
Koichi Sakurai of JR West said the company plans to appeal the ruling.
“It seems legally difficult for a railway company to ensure the safety when operating its trains on a line maintained by other railway companies,” he said. “What the driver (of the JR West train) did was legally correct,” he said adding that if he is obliged to predict an accident even when a signal is green, he must slow the train all the time, making railway operation impossible. He also said that the company does not plan to apologize to the bereaved families as it believes that SKR must be held solely responsible for the accident.
After hearing the ruling, Shunzo Yoshizaki, 65, who lost his wife in the accident, told reporters,: “The tickets were issued by JR (West). She died holding this ticket. It is regrettable that no criminal charges were brought against the railway.”
Kunio Nakahara, 62, who also lost his wife, said he could not term Monday’s ruling a victory, since he lost a family member. “It was a good decision not to settle the matter out of court before clarifying the cause of the accident,” he said. “I filed suit as a commemorative service for my wife.”
Yasuko Goto, 55, said her husband, who was killed in the crash, was happy when he found a direct JR train to take to the fair. “My husband was killed taking the train that he thought was safe,” she said. “The JR motorman did not even bow to us in court, as if he bore no responsibility. I was relieved that the court ruled he was also responsible.”