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Court blames gov’t for Sewol deaths

Compensation of W660 million awarded to surviving relatives
July 20,2018
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Family members who lost loved ones in the Sewol sinking four years ago shed tears after hearing the decision of the Seoul Central District Court to blame the government and ferry operator for the sinking and to have them compensate the victims’ families, in front of the court in Seocho District, southern Seoul, Thursday. [NEWS1]
The Seoul Central District Court ruled Thursday that both the government and the company that operated the Sewol ferry, which sunk four years ago, killing 304 passengers and crew, are liable for the deaths and should pay each victim’s family compensation of some 660 million won ($579,000) on average.

“The court sees fault in the Chonghaejin Marine Company [the ferry’s operator], the Korean government and the maritime police,” the Seoul Central District Court said in a statement on Thursday.

It said the ferry’s operator let the ferry sail overloaded, preventing the ferry from regaining balance after losing it for unexplained reasons, and that the maritime police, “which is responsible for protecting the lives of passengers and evacuating them in times of emergency,” did not “determine the situation on board the vessel and take measures to evacuate the passengers.”

The ferry began to tilt to its port side at 8:48 a.m. on April 16, 2014, in waters off Jindo Island, South Jeolla, and was completely capsized at 10:30 a.m., the court said.

“The passengers are suspected to have experienced fear for a far longer time than in other accidents,” the court said. “And they must have gone through excruciating pain before their deaths … The case has strong and wide-reaching societal consequences and it is important to ensure that such an accident does not take place again.”

The ruling on Thursday was the first time since the accident that a court ruled the government responsible. Chonghaejin Marine Company, Captain Lee Jun-seok - who was one of the first to evacuate the ferry - and other personnel involved in the incident have been found guilty of various criminal charges and sentenced to jail terms in 2014.

“The compensation was calculated based on the fact most of the victims were high school students,” the court said. “And based on how much they may have earned in their lifetime if they had lived to the age of 60.”

Of those who died on the ferry, 250 were juniors from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi, who were traveling on the ferry to Jeju Island on a field trip.

The court said the compensation for each victim’s family will differ depending on how many relatives are left behind.

The average of 660 million won includes 370 million won that the court expected each victim to have earned in his or her lifetime; 200 million won compensation for the life of each victim; and 80 million won to be provided to a spouse of a victim; 40 million won to a parent of a victim; 20 million won to a child of a victim; and 10 million won to a sibling of a victim.

“On average, each family will receive some 660 million won,” the court said.

The civil suit was submitted by 357 relatives of 118 victims in September 2015. The central government, at the time, had offered some 470 million won compensation to each victim’s family.

All of the 357 relatives refused the government compensation and filed the suit against the government and the ferry’s operator “to show the public, through a court ruling, how the government and the operator were responsible for the deaths,” the relatives said in a statement submitted to the court.

Some relatives criticized the court for not being more specific in saying how the government and company were responsible for the deaths.

“Of course they are responsible,” Yoo Gyeong-geun, chair of an association of relatives of Sewol ferry victims, told reporters in a press conference at the Seoul Central District Court Thursday. Yoo said the relatives would appeal Thursday’s ruling.

“The reason we filed a suit was so the court could specify exactly what the government and the operator did wrong,” he said. “We weren’t asking for a simple nod from the court acknowledging they are responsible.

“Remember, the Park Geun-hye administration responded to the incident in a way that showed it was not interested in rescuing the passengers,” Yoo said. “And after the ferry sunk, the administration even tried to thwart investigations into the case. In the appeal trial, we hope to see a more specific ruling.”

BY MOON HYON-KYONG and ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]