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Miyagi driving school ordered to pay damages over students' tsunami deaths

32 Comments

A driving school in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, was ordered by the Sendai District Court on Tuesday to pay ¥1.9 billion compensation to the relatives of 25 students and a part-time employee who died when the tsunami hit on March 11, 2011.

In filing the damages suit, the plaintiffs claimed that the school failed to take immediate action to evacuate the students even though a tsunami warning had been sounded after the quake struck, NTV reported.

The focal point of the suit was whether or not the driving school could have anticipated that the tsunami would reach their facility which was 750 meters away from the shore. School officials kept students on the premises for about 50 minutes after the quake hit before deciding to move them. As they were leaving in four vehicles, they were engulfed by the tsunami, killing them as well as 10 staff. Two other students, who were on foot, also perished.

The court said that fire trucks had sounded the alert earlier and that the school should have evacuated the students much sooner than it did, NTV reported.

Staff said the school director made the decision to keep everyone at the facility after hearing the initial alert, putting the height of the tsunami at only six meters. The director also died in the disaster.

This was the fourth suit against workplaces and kindergartens or schools over deaths resulting from failure to evacuate before the tsunami struck. The court has sided with the plaintiffs in two of the cases. At least 11 more cases are pending, NTV reported.

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32 Comments
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I think people got th epicture now and will always evacuate. Shame it took lives to believe in the reality of the power of the earth.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I have to agree with the ruling. 750 meters is awfully close. My kid's school is about the same distance and I can walk there in just over five minutes.

A 6 meter tsunami is huge. If I heard a tsunami siren warning after that humongous earthquake, I'd be flying outta there.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

There are way too many stories like this.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Very tragic events happened in northeast Japan with its Nahmis hopefully we will all learn from this rest in peace.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think people forget that here in Japan there are a lot of earthquake and tsunami warnings and alarms. Most of not all do no require evacuation. Especially when you are 750 meters from the sea side.

Its very tragic but taking a school to court is not going to fix anything.

11 ( +14 / -3 )

I understand the sorrow of the victims but I kinda find this ruling unfair....750 meters is really close to the sea! have you seen how fast the tsunami was during 3-11? 15-20 minutes it was already all over the place! it is a natural disaster no body wants and planned it.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

I think people forget that here in Japan there are a lot of earthquake and tsunami warnings and alarms.

@Gerard

I agree. In Japan, people are continually inundated with warning announcements of all types of supposedly impending 'dangers', and consequently become desensitized to them to the point where even valid warnings become nothing more than clamor and background noise.

These people on the Miyagi Pref. coast had been exposed to decades — lifetimes — of false warnings, which combined with a false sense of security that the huge investment in pubic works seawalls would protect them. Plus, from what I saw on the many tsunami videos, the alerts sounded by fire departments and local authorities were the regularly-used scripted and fairly run of the mill tsunami danger warnings, with nothing to indicate that this time it was the "real thing".

3 ( +3 / -0 )

On one hand, this is totally tragic. OTOH, my god, would a single westerner have looked to their driving school instructor for advice in such a situation or just fled instantly. The same old hierarchical thinking, deference to authority.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

The director who made the decision (and he should have been sued) died in the tsunami, so in that way he got the death penalty for his mistake already. I don´t see the point in suing the school now, other than just a money grab.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

You hear the evacuation warning and don't take personal responsibility to leave?

5 ( +5 / -0 )

From reading comments, it sounds like false warnings of tsunamis might be common. I would ask, how many false warming were there in the previous 10 years? It is in the nature of earthquakes and tsunamis that most earthquakes, even large ones, do not result in large tsunamis. Nevertheless, if a significant percentage of warnings turn out to be the real thing, say 10% or more, then all warnings should be heeded. If, on the other hand, fewer than 1%, or some similar number, turn out to be real, then one can understand how the manager might have thought he (or she) was doing the right thing by not insisting that everyone evacuate inland immediately.

A rough estimate, from my armchair, would be that a dangerous tsunami occurs in Japan once every several years.

The details need to be examined more closely.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Good for the judge. The shameful gaman culture of bullying others to endure to oblivion should be put to rest.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

It is not the job of the school to calculate or consider whether they should evacuate. If (as the article implies) the fire trucks, etc, gave warnings then they should have followed them.

On the topic of desensitization, that is a very good point- perhaps moving forward they should have a standard "watch/maybe/be careful" siren and a new, very different "warning/incoming" siren...or just not use the siren at all until it is for real.

@noypikantoku: They sat on their hands for 50 minutes before deciding to leave. Within that 50 minutes, most definitely the evacuation sirens/radio reports and firetrucks were going around. At the very least someone should have been calling or checking emergency webpage information.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I agree. In Japan, people are continually inundated with warning announcements of all types of supposedly impending 'dangers', and consequently become desensitized to them to the point where even valid warnings become nothing more than clamor and background noise.

The boy who cried wolf springs to mind

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This was a driving school. Not a prison! Did they force the students to stay and refuse to let them leave? I think there is a big element of deferring to "authority" in this case. So whose fault is it really? Nobodys. The quake and tsunami were both unprecedented.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Assuming that most of the students were under 20 years old and not legally adults, people supervising children must act responsibly. But I do agree with the above comment on people being desensitized to warnings in Japan. One can see it in children, they often do not respond to danger unless explicitly told told do something by their mother.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Can a driving school have enough money to pay out $16 million? Surely they can't have been insured against such circumstances.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

kaynide

You really cannot tell and answer in behalf of the people involved unless you are ACTUALLY in that place at that time. I was in Miyagi during 3-11 and one of the survivors, waters are coming all over the place and people are not really sure where to go because we were also not sure if the emergency designated areas are safe or not, we don't know where the water is actually coming from or where will it catch us, so it is hard to decide if risking running out is safer? or staying and climbing the roof is better? what happened was really fast and these giant waves are so fast and no pattern where it will flow or not. I realized that day that these evacuation drills etc. are ALL USELESS when it comes to disasters like these. You have to just trust your instincts and I think luck. We were lucky to be in a better place but stock there for a week.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

When a fire alarm goes off, we evacuate the building. A tsunami warning should be no different - you should evacuate.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I'm imagining the driving school staff were either absolutely petrified of potentially 'being held responsible' for anything that might happen if they let the students go, or they were stuck in some kind of 'does not compute' mental paradox between whether to actually act upon the dire warnings they were receiving vs following some stupid 'rules' they probably had in place (e.g. maybe some 'rule' about not letting students out early without transport or something dumb). Or possibly a combination of both.

But what REALLY saddens me is that nobody took their own initiative and saved themselves - instead deferring their own lives to the 'authority' and listening to some old geezer telling them to stay put. I can't imagine that happening elsewhere.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Sad story for sure. That said these people were old enough to drive or older, hardly children. Without knowing what the location was like height wise, routes to higher ground etc its hard to deal with this from the armchair.

People need to make decisions for THEMSELVES. Me I was at my accountants in Tokyo, after the big one I agonized do I try to drive out of the city back to Chiba, leave the car & try the trains or walking..............

There was ZERO useful info to make an even slightly informed decision, had no idea if roads were closed, building gone down NOTHING immediately afterwards, BUT I realized it was a damned tall order for the powers that be to get us that info.

In the end we all decided to stay overnite in the office. Turned out that was the best thing, drove home the next morning, took 13hrs to drive 15km before I could drive faster than 2-5/km/hr

Turned out ok, but could just as easily have gone bad, so if it had then I guess I could have sued my accountant........sorry that's BS!

Bottom line is if that school & other situations similar can be sued for dealing with adults, then CLEARLY we can take this back a couple steps & sue the police, fire dept, city hall, the god damned Diet!

STUPID!

I feel very sorry for all that lost their lives but suing people or companies that aren't remotely responsible for PUBLIC safety is wrong imo.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

This was so unfortunate. RIP to all who lost their lives. The good thing is this will never be repeated. I know everyone learned from their mistakes.

(I noticed people down-voting the people above who hinted that they would have opted to save themselves despite being told to stay put... #Iwouldtoosorry.)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I agreed 100% with the ruling, and thought it was not strict enough, until I read and saw that the director -- who made the decision -- died in the tsunami as well. How do you as a result hold the school responsible when the man in charge died? If it's because other staff did not disobey his orders and individually declare that they should leave, how do you not hold others, non-staff, equally responsible? I'm not saying people shouldn't have run, I'm just wondering where there responsibility starts and ends for those not in charge.

Also, for those who are talking about false reportings by media or what have you, that very often DOES happen in Japan, but you have to keep in mind this warning came after a MAJOR quake, so desensitized to warnings or not, they should have been a little more receptive to this one.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I understand that Japan has way too many tsunami warnings when it's miniscule. But that earthquake was one of the biggest ever in history.

Also, EVERY Japanese person saw and remembers the southeast Asian tsunami of 2004. They all knew that anything 750 meters to the coastline could easily be wiped out.

Sitting and staying put after a monster quake like that while sirens and warnings were being blared out was absolutely irresponsible and stupid.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Yeah, well, a warning is like advice. It's only good if it's heeded. The tsunami warning stated it was a 6 meter wave and the director didn't do anything? That's just crazy! This scenario of people ignoring the warnings and ending up dead seems to be a familiar one. I wonder how many people would still be alive if they had heeded the warnings and got to higher ground.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

One thing I don't quite get though, is that driving school students are adults. Surely they could have left on their own? Or were they told that they should / have to stay? Regular school students I totally understand are going to follow teachers & staff, but this one just puzzles me a bit.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I'm not all that familiar with the details of this case but a pre-tsunami photo of the school and post-tsunami arial view of the area make me think there wasn't much, if any, in the way of high ground or buildings nearby. It may be that it wasn't possible or likely anyone could reach safety on foot. The two students who fled on foot also died but I don't know at what time point they started walking or in what direction. This is one of those driving schools that picks up young people from various points by bus, it's quite likely that there would have been no other transportation available. I saw a map on TV that showed the four buses left the school by at least two different routes going in completely different directions, and then branched off I think. But all of the buses were overwhelmed by the tsunami. I suspect the only way these people could have been saved would have been if the school buses started earlier. The TV also showed that the nearest designated evacuation center was indeed not touched by the tsunami. It's really a shame that the school didn't at least get them to that point.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Educator60 - They had 50 minutes from the warning to when the tsunami struck. That's enough time to drive at least 30k inland.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Disillusioned "Educator60 - They had 50 minutes from the warning to when the tsunami struck. That's enough time to drive at least 30k inland."

I know. That's why I said that I suspect the only way these people could have been saved would have been if the school buses started earlier. I believe they would all be alive today if the school had started the busing much earlier. Obviously the court agrees with that and that's why the parents won their case.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@noypikantoku: I am sorry for your loss and terrible situation... it must have been hell for you. A dear friend of mine was in there as well- he took his eikaiwa class and ran for whatever highlands was nearby. Luckily he and his survived but they ran as soon as the sirens started up.

It is mostly because of his testimony that I stand by my statement that 50 minutes of "wait and see" is irresponsible. It was a huge earthquake- bigger than any they had felt in their lives most likely.

So, you are right no one could have predicted the level of devastation but it is exactly for that reason they should have (at the very least) run for the hills. Japan is a very mountainous country. 50 minutes if they escaped as soon as possible would have put them on or near one.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think someone said it before but I can't find who posted it so I'm gonna say it again. This just money grabbing and looking for someone to blame for the deaths caused by a natural disaster.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A terrible day. So many lost when all it took was to heed warnings, even the stones set by long gone past generations, 'Don't build below this point'... now the announcements are not so gentle and suggestive, the TV and radio DEMANDS you act. All the same this is an interesting precedent to set. RESPONSIBILITY. A very difficult definition to pin on to anyone or thing in Japan. Notoriously so. There's a company that had a power plant not far from the coast, ignored warnings, instructions and advice to improve... and look what happened there.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

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