Family of girl killed in tsunami win damages over improper school guidance

The Sendai District Court on Thursday ordered a city in northeastern Japan to pay about 26.5 million yen in damages to the family of a 9-year-old girl who died in the 2011 tsunami disaster, citing improper guidance by the school.

The girl, who was in the third year of the city-run elementary school in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, initially evacuated to the school gymnasium but returned to her home in the coastal area with the help of her classmate’s parents and was engulfed by the tsunami.

In handing down the ruling, which is believed to be the first of its kind among a series of tsunami-related lawsuits, Presiding Judge Hiroshi Oshima said, “The school principal should have foreseen that she could be hit by the tsunami because she had to pass through a projected flood-hazard area (in tsunami disasters) on her way home.”

He also said the girl was not capable enough of making appropriate decisions on her own and it was difficult for her to take the best possible means of protecting herself after returning home.

The judge, however, rejected compensation claims related to two other residents who their families said died because they were directed to the gymnasium under the guidance of the principal, saying it was impossible to foresee that the tsunami would reach the structure that was outside the projected flood-hazard area.

“The principal was not obliged to guide people to the second story (of school buildings) or higher floors,” Oshima said.

The bereaved families of the girl and the two residents in their 70s and 80s had sought a total of about 53 million yen in damages, pointing to negligence in evacuation guidance and the inappropriateness of entrusting the girl to her classmate’s parents.

City officials insisted during the trial that they were not able to predict that the girl would be hit by the tsunami and die because her home was outside the flood-hazard area.

They also said information-gathering was difficult due to power outages. But the judge said in the ruling that they could get information from car televisions and radios.

Higashimatsushima Mayor Hideo Abe said in a statement that he does not yet know the details of the ruling. A lawyer representing the bereaved families declined to comment on the issue.

According to the ruling and other sources, at least 13 people died in the gymnasium of the Nobiru elementary school in the city of Higashimatsushima.

More than a dozen lawsuits seeking compensation from schools and other entities over the death of tsunami victims have been filed in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures.

In two cases involving a nursery school and a driver’s school in Miyagi, the Sendai District Court ordered compensation payments. The former case reached a settlement at the Sendai High Court, with the nursery school apologizing for its handling during the disaster, and the latter is still pending.

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