• Kyodo

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Former Mitsubishi Motors Corp. President Katsuhiko Kawasoe denied in court Wednesday that he was aware that some of MMC’s trucks had defective clutches and thus that he failed to prevent a fatal accident in 2002.

Meanwhile, in the first hearing of his trial before the Yokohama District Court, Takashi Usami, 64, former vice president of MMC and former chairman of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Corp., also pleaded not guilty to the charge of professional negligence resulting in death.

Former MMC executives Yuzo Murata, 67, and Tatsuro Nakagami, 62, pleaded guilty.

Kawasoe, 68, expressed regret over the accident, but claimed, “I do not bear any criminal responsibility because I was not told of the defective clutch system at the time.”

Kawasoe and the three others were charged with professional negligence resulting in death after being arrested in June.

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association said it is the first trial in which the top executives of an automaker are being held criminally liable over a fatal accident.

The trial is expected to focus on Kawasoe’s responsibility in failing to prevent the accident.

According to the indictment, MMC was aware of the defective clutch by May 1996.

It says Kawasoe and the three others falsified reports on the defect to the then Transport Ministry to avoid vehicle recalls in 2000, when they were senior executives at MMC.

They concealed the defect despite revelations earlier that year that they had covered up other vehicle defects. The indictment says the men told the ministry that “there are no records of any vehicle defects prior to March 1998.”

The defective clutch caused an accident on Oct. 19, 2002, when a truck’s drive shaft fell off on a highway in Yamaguchi Prefecture, disabling the brake. The 39-year-old driver was killed when the vehicle smashed into a roadside structure at an intersection, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that MMC opted not to recall trucks with the defective clutch because recalling the roughly 92,000 of them on the road would have cost MMC about 9 billion yen.

The prosecutors said Usami had been aware that the clutch problems, which had been reported from around 1990, were the result of faulty design.

But even after the defect was determined worthy of a recall during an internal meeting in 1996, the final decision was put off due to the expense, they said.

Other executives approached Kawasoe, who became president in 1997, and reportedly told him MMC should put an end to illegal practices such as conducting repairs without issuing recalls.

Kawasoe’s response was that such a change could not be undertaken anytime soon, and that it would require time, prosecutors alleged.

Current MMC Chairman Yoichiro Okazaki said in a statement, “We, as a company, take very seriously the accusation against one of our former presidents in the case.”

Speaking at a news conference later in the day, Okazaki said, “The company feels a social responsibility and is willing to prevent further coverups, reform our corporate characteristics and work to ensure road traffic safety.”

Mitsubishi Fuso President Wilfried Porth, from DaimlerChrysler AG of Germany, told reporters separately that outside lawyers are examining the clutch system defect and other problems at the company and will submit a report by the end of the year. Mitsubishi Fuso was spun off from MMC in January 2003.

A separate trial is already under way for Mitsubishi Motors, Usami and four other former MMC executives for their alleged failures to prevent a fatal accident in Yokohama in 2002.

In that accident, a young mother was killed and her two sons were injured when they were hit by a wheel that came off a large Mitsubishi truck with a faulty wheel hub.

The defendants in the Yokohama case have all pleaded not guilty to falsifying reports to authorities and to charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

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