The Kobe District Court on Jan. 11 found former West Japan Railway Co. President Masao Yamazaki not guilty of professional negligence in the April 25, 2005, commuter train accident on the Fukuchiyama Line in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. The crash killed 106 passengers and the train driver, and injured 562 others.

The fact that not a single person has been found responsible for this tragic accident demonstrates the limitations of criminal trials. By focusing only on the responsibility of individual employees rather than the firms they work for, the courts fail to deal with the structural problems of companies involved in accidents. A new legal procedure to take such factors into account should be introduced.

As head of JR West’s train headquarters, Mr. Yamazaki was in charge of safety from 1996 to 1998. In December 1996, the radius of the curve where the accident later took place was reduced from 600 meters to 304 meters to connect the Fukuchiyama Line to a new line in March 1997. The trial focused on whether Mr. Yamazaki should have anticipated that this change could raise the risk of an accident and ordered the installation of an automatic train-stop system (ATS), which halts trains under certain conditions to prevent accidents.

Kobe public prosecutors insisted that Mr. Yamazaki should have been able to foresee the possibility of an accident because a cargo train on JR Hokkaido’s Hakodate Line had derailed on a 300-meter-radius curve on Dec. 4, 1996, and the number of fast trains like the one involved in the accident had greatly increased on the Fukuchiyama Line from March 1997.

The court stated that JR West failed to achieve the desired level in analyzing the possibility of an accident and in installing an ATS. But noting that a company’s responsibility and a person’s responsibility are different matters, it ruled that “the concrete possibility of an accident” was not clear to Mr. Yamazaki. The court pointed out that at that time, ATS installation was not legally required and that no other employees around him mentioned the possibility of an accident since JR West lines had quite a few similar curves.

To avoid this kind of outcome in future criminal trials, the government should seriously consider an April 2011 proposal by a Japan Transport Safety Board team that the board’s own accident investigation be conducted separately from the investigation of criminal negligence in order to get a total picture of an accident and that criminal punishment be meted out to both employees involved and to companies employing them.

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