The Supreme Court upheld on Tuesday a lower court’s acquittal of three former presidents of West Japan Railway Co. over a 2005 derailment that killed 106 passengers and the driver in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.
Rejecting an appeal filed by lawyers who served as prosecutors in the case, the top court’s Second Petty Bench, led by Justice Tsuneyuki Yamamoto, said the former JR West presidents were “not able to recognize that the curve at the site of the accident posed a high degree of danger.”
A rapid service train on the JR Fukuchiyama Line derailed and crashed into a condominium building in Amagasaki during the morning rush hour on April 25, 2005, after failing to negotiate the tight bend in the track. The accident left 562 other people injured.
The rush-hour commuter train derailed upon entering a curved section at a speed far exceeding its maximum permitted limit before crashing into the condominium.
The three defendants — Masataka Ide, 82, Shojiro Nanya, 75 and Takeshi Kakiuchi, 73 — had served as presidents in the period between when the railway operator made the curve tighter in 1996 and when the accident occurred.
Initially, prosecutors only indicted Masao Yamazaki, 74, also a former president, and dropped charges against the three on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence against them.
Yamazaki was cleared of professional negligence resulting in death and injury at a district court in 2012.
A Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, a panel of citizens tasked with reviewing criminal cases, later decided twice that the three should be indicted for professional negligence resulting in death and injury, prompting their mandatory indictment by court-appointed lawyers serving as prosecutors.
The main focus of the trial was whether the defendants were able to foresee the possibility of a derailment and should have installed a computerized safety mechanism known as the automatic train stop system, or ATS.
Court-appointed lawyers argued that the three led the installment of the tight curve and revisions to timetables for train services on the line in a manner that would make it harder for drivers to run trains on time. The lawyers argued that the three neglected to install an ATS, although they could have foreseen the possibility of an accident.
But the top court said the defendants “were not able to recognize that the accident site posed a particularly high risk among more than 2,000 similar curves in the company’s operating area,” while noting that there were no rules at the time that required railway operators to install an ATS. It also said the three were not in a position to grasp detailed information taken from the field.
Both the Kobe District Court and the Osaka High Court had found the three not guilty as they could not have foreseen the possibility of a derailment. Lawyers acting as prosecutors then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
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