Employee forgets to turn off the water, but did employers forget to turn on labor laws?

Even the sharpest minds among us occasionally forget to turn off the air conditioner when we leave the house or leave a loaded gun in a public restroom every once in a while. It’s inevitable, and we can only hope that when it happens it doesn’t result in serious consequences.

A case in point is a Hyogo Prefectural Office worker who was ordered to pay three million yen (US$28,000) for leaving the water running at his workplace for about a month.

It all started in October of 2019 when a government office building in Kobe was undergoing its annual inspection. A contractor was handling the inspection of a storage tank capable of holding 15 tonnes (3,962 gallons) of water for use in the building, and was being assisted by the employee in question.

▼ A video showing some typical storage tank maintenance, and set to soothing music

When the contractor was finished the employee told him, “I’ll handle the rest,” and let him take off early. However, he didn’t quite handle everything and forgot to close the drain in the storage tank. As a result, rather than storing water it simply provided a brief rest stop for tonnes upon tonnes of free flowing water.

The mistake wasn’t noticed until a month later when the building’s water bill was roughly six million yen (US$57,000) higher than usual. An investigation followed and linked the employee with the open drain, so the prefecture filed a lawsuit against him.

Since the employee explicitly said he would “handle the rest” the court found that his responsibility in the matter was significant and ordered that he pay half of the excess bill, which he did at the end of last year.

▼ The defendant was ordered to spend his money like water.

The issue didn’t come to light until the 8th of this month, when Hyogo Governor Toshizo Ido held a press conference. “I would like to apologize to the citizens of the prefecture,” said Ido, “for the damage caused by one of our employees’ mistake.”

While it seemed the matter had been settled for the governor, many online felt that justice hadn’t been served by forcing a single person to bear such a heavy cost on his own. Others, however, agreed with the ruling.

“I do this kind of work too, and you have to be extremely careful. Still, employees should never be forced to pay out of their own pocket like that.”
“If this is the case, shouldn’t all the police and judges who falsely convict someone be forced to serve half of the victims’ time in prison?”
“Couldn’t they just dock his salary?”
“It’s a government building, so if he doesn’t pay then all the residents have to pay for his mistake.”
“At least he was able to keep his job.”
“I think the saddest part of all this is that water is so expensive.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Why wasn’t he given any indemnity?”
“A worker’s liability is limited by law. They should know that.”

Laws limiting the amount of money an individual can be responsible for repaying do exist in Japan. However, in cases where gross negligence is displayed, those laws go right out the window. Unfortunately, by letting the contractor leave, the employee was skipping a crucial double-check which allowed the mistake to occur and thus committed gross negligence in the eyes of the court.

It’s a sad outcome, but all this talk of liability has got me thinking. Let’s say hypothetically that there was a chairman of an Olympic committee who was single-handedly causing volunteers to quit by the hundreds mere months before the games. Should he not have to pay up for all that added labor cost he created to replace them?

Source: The Sankei News, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert image: Pakutaso
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