The acquittal of former presidents of West Japan Railway Co. over a tragic 2005 train derailment has prompted calls for legal reforms that would enable prosecutors to hold corporations criminally liable for causing large-scale accidents.
The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court’s decision that three former heads of JR West were not guilty of negligence over the accident that killed 106 passengers and the driver in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.
“The decision showed that judicial authorities did not fulfill their role at all,” said Shigemi Omori whose daughter was killed in the accident.
Omori, 68, heads a group seeking a new system under which a corporation could face criminal liability for a major accident.
The three former JR West presidents were accused of professional negligence resulting in death and injury under the Penal Code, a charge that applies only to individuals.
“The major accident claimed the lives of 106 passengers and left more than 500 injured. But we have held no one responsible for it,” said Omori, who is from the city of Kobe. “I feel great disappointment and distress,” he added.
As the driver died in the accident, no JR West employee has faced criminal charges in connection with the incident.
“That renewed my resolve” to seek a system that could hold companies criminally responsible for major accidents, Omori said.
Omori, in addition, has been working with other groups with bereaved families whose loved ones were involved in major disasters such as a 2012 expressway tunnel ceiling collapse in Yamanashi Prefecture, in which 12 people were killed and two were injured, and a 2016 ski tour bus accident in Nagano Prefecture, which left 15 dead and 26 injured.
“If top officials of an organization are not found guilty (in a major incident), the firm would become more profit-oriented and think less of safety management,” said Kunio Matsumoto, who comes from Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture. He lost his daughter in the tunnel accident on the Chuo Expressway.
Matsumoto works as Omori’s deputy in the group for holding organizations to account for safety.
JR West came under fire over allegations that some of its officials were involved in punishment-oriented training practices and creating a corporate culture that allegedly pressured the train driver to accelerate to an unusually high speed before the accident.
But during the trial, the three defendants were primarily asked whether they were able to foresee a potential derailment near the accident site and whether they should have known to install equipment to preventive such a derailing.
“Under the current legal framework, the focus is whether the defendants can expect a specific danger,” said Hiroshi Yasuhara, a retired judge who advises the group.
“The latest court decision showed the reality that the higher corporate officials are, the more difficult it is to hold them criminally responsible (in major accidents),” Yasuhara said.
The decision by the top court also underscores the difficulties to bring these charges under the current prosecutorial system — a process which can be arduous with low probability of success. If public prosecutors are reluctant to press on, citizen groups can challenge the decision by taking the case to an inquest panel. The three former presidents were indicted based on the system.
The inquest system for prosecution was launched in May 2009 with the idea of making it easier to reflect citizens’ viewpoints in the judicial process.
The inquest panel has indicted suspects in nine cases since the system was launched. Of these, defendants in only two cases were found guilty, reflecting the difficulty of reopening cases that public prosecutors drop.
Yasuyuki Takai, a former public prosecutor, says that any reform to the legal system should explore an alternative to the current system, which forces hefty financial and psychological burdens upon both victims and defendants alike.
“One option would be to punish the corporation instead of the individual,” Takai said. “We should create a framework that would enable us to hold a company found responsible (for a major accident) liable to a large financial penalty so we can ensure no similar incident will ever happen again,” he said.
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