YOKOHAMA – The Yokohama District Court on Tuesday ordered a Nagoya-based expressway operator to pay around ¥440 million in damages to the families of five of the nine people killed when the concrete ceiling in a tunnel collapsed three years ago.
The parents and other relatives of the five had demanded a total of ¥912 million, arguing that Central Nippon Expressway Co. and its Tokyo-based subsidiary failed to maintain and repair the aging structure.
The ceiling of the 4.7-km-long Sasago Tunnel, located on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture about 80 km west of Tokyo, had not undergone a major refurbishment since its 1977 opening.
The relatives also argued the disaster was predictable as a similar accident had happened in the United States.
They said the companies could have prevented the accident if they had conducted a more detailed examination of the anchor bolts in the tunnel ceiling during maintenance checks three months before the accident.
The companies have admitted to some responsibility but denied the accident was predictable or that there was any causal relationship between the maintenance checks and the accident.
On the morning of Dec. 2, 2012, ceiling slabs came off in one section of the tunnel and fell on vehicles.
Nine people were killed and two were injured after three vehicles became trapped in the tunnel.
The five victims in the lawsuit — three men and two women all aged between 27 and 28 — were living together in Tokyo and were on their way to Yamanashi in a station wagon when the disaster occurred.
The relatives said they filed the suit in 2013 against Central Nippon Expressway, which was in charge of management of the tunnel, and the subsidiary in charge of maintenance, in hopes that responsibility for the accident would be made clear and that such a disaster will never be repeated.
A series of lawsuits have been filed over the accident and Tuesday’s was the first ruling.
Local police have been investigating the incident on suspicion of negligence resulting in deaths and injuries.
The accident prompted authorities to inspect aging tunnels across Japan.
The past three years have been a painful time for the families of the people who were killed.
The Uedas — Satoshi, 63, and Atsuko, 59 — did not want to be reminded of the tunnel accident three years ago that took the life of their 27-year-old son, Wataru, so they hid their TV in a closet soon after the tragedy.
The Yokohama couple were among the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit that was ruled on Tuesday.
Satoshi Ueda said that for several months after the accident, he would jump at every noise and sound in the belief his son had come back. He said his son liked to travel and anytime he could take a few days off he would travel around Asia.
“He’s enjoying his journey,” Satoshi Ueda kept telling himself to suppress the pain and bitterness.
About a year after the accident, Atsuko Ueda’s health deteriorated and she needed to be hospitalized. Upon release, she was asked to testify in court.
But while she managed to show up for the hearings, she could not gather her thoughts to verbally express her emotions and ended up submitting a written statement.
“I feel guilty and sorry for Wataru, as I only passed my statement on while families of other victims fought for their loved ones in court,” she said with regret.
Atsuko Ueda said her son appeared to her in a dream in October.
“You can’t leave it like this. You have to make it never happen again,” he told her. Noting his easygoing nature, she said those words sounded as strong as ever.
“Even decades will not be enough to overcome our grief and loss,” Satoshi Ueda said. But two years and seven months after the accident, he said he hopes the ruling will enable him to start a new chapter.
Wataru Ueda, who worked for an advertising company, was passionate about photography and took thousands of pictures during his trips.
The Uedas plan to create a book using photographs their son saved on his computer. “To live our lives today, we want to make something out of our son’s work,” Satoshi Ueda said.