SENDAI – The Sendai District Court on Tuesday ordered a driving school in Miyagi Prefecture to pay ¥1.9 billion in damages to relatives of 25 students and a part-time employee who died in the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disasters.
It is the fourth time a district court has ruled on a damages suit filed by families of tsunami victims against operators of their school or workplace, and the second time damages were awarded. At least 15 such suits have been filed.
The court found that the Tokiwa-Yamamoto Driving School in the town of Yamamoto could have predicted the arrival of tsunami after the massive earthquake struck.
Awarding nearly all of the ¥1.97 billion sought by the plaintiffs, presiding Judge Kenji Takamiya said the school “had a duty to foresee the tsunami and transport the students to safety.”
According to the ruling, the school kept students at a facility 750 meters from the shore after the earthquake struck as they discussed whether to restart lessons.
Having decided to suspend classes, the school evacuated the students in several vehicles between 50 minutes and one hour after the earthquake. The tsunami struck shortly afterward, killing 23 students in four vehicles.
Two more students were engulfed by the tsunami while on foot, having returned to the facility from lessons further inland.
The part-time employee of the school, a 27-year-old woman, died in the tsunami at or near the facility after being told to remain there to clean up.
The school had called for the suit to be dismissed, claiming it had no duty to evacuate the students and employee to safety as it could not have expected the tsunami to reach the facility.
A group of 40 relatives and lawyers packed the court for the ruling, some holding portraits of the tsunami victims.
Hirofumi Terashima, 52, whose 19-year-old son, Keisuke, was among the students, told reporters he felt relieved after the ruling.
“I think our children would be happy with the way we have all come together to do our best,” Terashima said.
Reiko Yusa, 43, called for the school to apologize following the ruling, saying the head of the school should offer an apology at the grave of her 18-year-old daughter, Miyuki.
According to the school, 10 others were killed in the disaster, including teachers and members of its management.
Other lawsuits against schools and workplaces seeking damages for tsunami deaths have seen various outcomes.
A kindergarten in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, reached a settlement last month with relatives of children killed in its shuttle bus after being ordered to pay damages by the Sendai court last September.
The same court rejected a suit over the deaths of bank employees in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, ruling last February that the bank could not have foreseen such a large tsunami striking the area.