The Matsumoto Branch of the Nagano District Court on July 13 dismissed a lawsuit filed against the Japanese government and other parties by families of those killed in the September 2014 Mount Ontake eruption.
However, the court also ruled illegal the Japan Meteorological Agency’s (JMA) decision not to raise the volcanic alert level, saying the agency failed to fulfill its obligations.
Mount Ontake, which straddles the border between Gifu and Nagano prefectures in central Japan, erupted on September 27, 2014, killing 58 people and 5 missing. This is the worst volcanic eruption in the country since the end of World War II.
The plaintiffs – 30 bereaved family members and two people injured in the eruption – filed suit in January 2017, demanding a total of 376 million yen (about $2.72 million) in compensation.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs pointed out that volcanic tremors were observed 52 times on September 10, 2014, and 85 times the following day. They argued that although the sighting of 50 or more volcanic tremors per day is one of the criteria for raising the Volcanic Alert Level from 1 (normal – at the time of the eruption) to 2 (restricting the access to the area around the crater), the JMA neglected to act, resulting in increased damage.
However, the Nagano court ruling pointed out that the criteria for determining whether to raise the alert level read in part as follows: “The standards are general guidelines, and a decision must be made comprehensively while taking into account observational data. The decision said that meeting a criterion, such as 50 volcanic tremors per day, cannot be considered sufficient to immediately raise the alert level to 2.
On the other hand, the District Court also drew attention to the fact that on September 25, 2014 – two days before the eruption – a JMA employee had pointed out that Mount Ontake could swell due to a magma accumulation, based on data from the Global Navigation Satellite System. The decision acknowledged that while mountain swelling is a significant indicator of a potential eruption, the JMA Volcanology Division decided not to raise the Alert Level to 2, after only a brief review.
The ruling went on to call the sequence of events and the final decision “unlawful” and “significantly lacking in rationality.” However, he still rejected the claim, as he acknowledged that it may have taken some time to raise the alert level, and that even if it had been raised, it would not is uncertain whether entry bans and other restrictions could have been implemented. as the victims climbed the mountain. The court thus denied the connection between the illegal actions of the JMA and the damages.
The plaintiffs plan to appeal.
Regarding the legal status of the volcanic alert level, the national government explained that it is “an indicator that supports the exercise by municipal leaders of the right to impose restrictions”. However, the decision stressed that they “are intended to protect the lives and bodies of citizens against disasters”.
The plaintiffs had also argued that the actions of the Nagano prefectural government were also illegal, as it neglected to repair broken seismometers near the summit. However, the court rejected this request.
(Japanese original by Kenji Kimura, Tokyo Regional News Department)