• Kyodo


The Amagasaki branch of the Kobe District Court dismissed on Tuesday a suit filed by the mother of a man killed by the collapse of the Hanshin Expressway during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, seeking 92 million yen in compensation from the expressway operator.

Presiding Judge Yasukazu Watanabe, the fifth judge to preside over the 1997 suit, dismissed Michiko Yorozu’s claim that the highway collapsed because Hanshin Expressway Public Corp. failed to build piers of sufficient strength for the elevated expressway.

Lawyers for Yorozu, 79, indicated they will appeal the ruling to a higher court.

Yorozu argued the corporation’s faulty construction and control of the expressway contributed to its collapse, in which her adopted 51-year-old son, Eiji, a company employee, was killed.

He died when the elevated section of the expressway in Higashi Nada Ward, Kobe, collapsed during the Jan. 17, 1995, temblor while he was driving a micro-bus along it.

His mother filed the suit against the corporation two years later, claiming the expressway operator was to blame for the insufficient strength of the support piers, and the magnitude of the quake was within the range of expectations.

Hanshin Expressway argued that it built the piers in accordance with the government’s earthquake-resistance standards set in 1971, claiming it is not responsible because the collapse was caused by an “unexpectedly massive earthquake.”

In his ruling, the judge said: “The piers had sufficient strength and there is no evidence to prove physical flaws in the construction of the piers. It would be appropriate to believe that the collapse was caused by the impact of the quake, which exceeded the level assumed in the design (of the expressway structure).”

Because an earthquake is a natural phenomenon, expressway operators cannot be required to build structures that can withstand an unlimited level of impact, the judge said.

He said the expressway was built to resist earthquakes of a magnitude equivalent to that of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and that it had regularly checked the structures in line with government instructions.

The collapse of a 635-meter elevated section of the Hanshin Expressway killed 16 people. Only Yorozu’s family filed a damages suit against the expressway operator.

The ruling acknowledged evidence of shoddy construction work on the piers along other sections of the expressway, but the court said this does not prove there were physical flaws in the piers supporting the section that collapsed.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake struck at 5:46 a.m., resulting in the loss of more than 5,500 lives in the first few days. The death toll eventually climbed to 6,433.

After the district court’s decision, Yorozu said she did not have much to say, before adding, “I still believe (the expressway’s collapse) was a disaster caused by human error.”

Osamu Hashiba, one of Yorozu’s lawyers, called the decision the “worst ruling imaginable.” The court totally accepted the argument of the expressway operator, he said.

Yorozu’s lawyers also criticized the court for frequently changing the judges handling the case.

Over the lawsuit’s six years, 14 judges deliberated over the case. The lawyers said the ruling, handed down by a judge who did not directly hear the testimony of any witnesses, cannot be considered fair.

The Hanshin Expressway suffered damage to more than 300 sections, and six elevated sections collapsed. Since the earthquake, its operator increased the thickness of each pier by 60 cm and wrapped steel plates around concrete piers to boost their resistance to quakes.

Nevertheless, an inspection last year showed that cracks were found on sections of 141 of the expressway’s 1,199 piers, with 33 of them requiring repairs.

The expressway corporation suspects that some of the cracks may have resulted from the 1995 quake, and plans to complete repair work by the end of fiscal 2003.

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