SEOUL, South Korea — A court on Thursday ordered the South Korean government and a shipping company to pay compensation to families who lost relatives in the 2014 sinking of an overloaded, poorly inspected ferry that killed 304 people, most of them high school students.
The ruling by the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday was the first time that the state was held financially culpable in the case. The sinking of the Sewol ferry, South Korea’s worst catastrophe in decades, rattled the nation and helped precipitate the impeachment and ouster of former President Park Geun-hye last year.
The government has already apologized for failing to prevent the sinking of the ferry and botching the rescue operation, offering a compensation package for bereaved families that averaged 470 million won, or about $415,000, per victim. But the families of 118 victims have rejected that offer, and in 2015, they sued the government and Chonghaejin Marine Company, the ferry’s operator, seeking court-ordered compensation.
In its ruling on Thursday, a three-judge panel ordered that the government and the shipping company pay the families compensation averaging 600 million won, or about $530,000, per victim.
The 6,825-ton Sewol capsized and sank off the southwestern tip of South Korea on April 16, 2014. The ship went under while teenagers trapped inside sent text messages asking for help that never came and saying goodbye to their families.
The investigation of the sinking exposed a slew of loopholes in safety standards that was seen as reflective of South Korea’s desire to keep its economy humming.
Chonghaejin Marine routinely overloaded the structurally imbalanced ship with poorly secured cargo, as it did on the ferry’s final voyage, according to government investigators. Inspectors gave the Sewol and other ships just a cursory check from the pier, or none at all.
When the Sewol capsized, its crew members were among the first to flee, after repeatedly telling passengers to stay in their cabins. The first Coast Guard boat that arrived at the scene did little more than pick up the fleeing crew members, while passengers trapped inside the ferry banged on the windows as the ship slowly disappeared beneath the waves.
As a result, “the victims died while waiting for help,” the court ruling said on Thursday. “They must have suffered the extreme fear and anxiety during the long hours from the time the ship began tilting to the time when it completely sank.”
In 2015, the captain of the ferry, Lee Jun-seok, was sentenced to life in prison on charges of “murder through willful negligence.” Fourteen other crew members received lesser prison sentences. Dozens of ferry company officials, safety inspectors and Coast Guard officials have been convicted on various criminal charges.
When the Constitutional Court removed Ms. Park from office in March last year after her parliamentary impeachment, it faulted her handling of the disaster, saying she stayed in her residence, not in her office, for seven hours after she first heard of the sinking. But the court said that was not grounds to impeach her. Instead, the court ousted Ms. Park on other charges, including corruption and abuse of power.
But her government’s mishandling of the catastrophe fueled popular grievances that drove millions of people to the streets in large protest rallies that preceded her impeachment.