One of Japan’s enduring urban legends is that railway companies demand compensation from families of people who commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of trains. Because the media doesn’t report such matters it isn’t easy to verify, but according to the Chunichi Shimbun railways “in principle” send bills to families of people who die in railroad “accidents” if the railroad is not at fault and the accident causes a delay that costs the railway money. The articles don’t say anything specific about suicides, however.
The subject of the piece is a case that was recently decided in Nagoya District Court. JR Tokai sued the family of a 91-year-old man from Obu City, Aichi Prefecture, who was hit by a train and killed while walking along the tracks of the Tokaido line in December 2007. JR Tokai was demanding ¥7.2 million from the family for losses incurred due to delays caused by the accident, which affected 27,000 passengers and 34 trains, forcing the railroad to provide alternate transportation, such as buses, to inconvenienced customers.
In court, JR Tokai’s lawyers said the company sent a bill to the family of the man “as it usually does in such matters,” but the family never responded, so they filed a lawsuit and in the end the judge awarded JR the full amount it asked for. The family will appeal.
At issue was the responsibility of the family in the actions of the old man, who suffered from dementia. Six years ago local welfare officials determined that the man required 24-hour supervision. The family placed him in an institution several days a week, but on the remaining days he was at home with his 85-year-old wife, who can mostly fend for herself. In addition, the man’s eldest son, who lives in Yokohama, set up a care system for his father that included his wife regularly traveling to Obu to help out. On the day the accident happened he was alone with his wife, who dozed off, and he wandered out of the house and to the nearest station where he somehow ended up on the tracks.
Chunichi says there is no precedent for a railway company suing over an accident caused by a person with dementia, and the lawyer for the family said that the case could have serious repercussions for families with elderly members who have serious cognitive disabilities, since it means they could be liable for all sorts of incidents, and not just those involving trains.
In court the family said that JR Tokai should bear some of the responsibility since it didn’t prevent the man from getting on the tracks after he entered the station (presumably without a ticket, which raises another question). JR countered by saying it had “fulfilled all our legal obligations” with regard to track safety, and the judge agreed, adding that it was the responsibility of the family to monitor and supervise the actions of the old man.
But if families are monetarily liable for actions carried out by members who are senile, can they also be liable for members who are suicides? So far there doesn’t seem to be a court precedent for such a situation. It seems to depend on the circumstances, suicide or not.
For instance, recently a 40-year-old woman was killed trying to help an old man who stumbled trying to cross the tracks of the JR Yokohama Line. The old man survived, but there has been no report that JR East is demanding he pay up, maybe because the media reports on the heroism of the woman drowned it out or made the company think twice about possible negative publicity if it made such a demand in this case.
Then again, earlier this week a 47-year-old man was killed while crossing the tracks of the Tobu Tojo Line in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. Witnesses say he was walking and absorbed in his cell phone when he was hit and didn’t notice the train, though obviously he had enough presence of mind to go through the gates, which were down. Now that guy’s family will probably receive a bill.