The Seoul Central District Court awarded 200 million won ($177,000) in compensation for each deceased passenger and 40 million won to parents of students who lost their lives in the tragedy.
It is the first court ruling that upholds the victims' call for state liability in the accident that shocked the nation four years ago.
|This photo shows the wreckage of the Sewol ferry that was raised from sea in April this year, four years after it sank off the southwestern coast on April 16, 2014, killing more than 300 passengers. (Yonhap)|
The court also awarded compensation of 5 million won to 20 million won for siblings and grandparents of the deceased.
"The court acknowledges the liability in compensating the plaintiffs, since the negligence by the state and Cheonghaejin Marine Co. has resulted in the occurrence of the accident," it said in the ruling.
The Sewol ferry sank off the southwestern coast of South Korea while en route to the resort island of Jeju, on April 16, 2014. The accident claimed 304 lives, mostly high school students on their way to a school trip.
In September 2015, 354 bereaved family members of 118 victims lodged the suit against the state, asking the court to determine "state liability for the cause, lax handling and result" of the accident. They sought a combined 107 billion won payout, or about 1 billion won for each victim.
The sinking of the 6,800-ton ship sparked an outpouring of public outrage in the aftermath as initial investigations revealed serious shortcomings in the government's response system for the rescue and post-salvage operations.
In particular, the unaccounted whereabouts of then-President Park Geun-hye at the critical time of the sinking later became one of the triggers that led to her impeachment and ouster last year.
A prosecution probe was launched early this year over a slew of allegations of the Park government's mishandling of the Sewol sinking. It turned out her top officials worked together to falsify the time log on the initial report to the president to hide the fact that she had remained out of reach for some time.
The court on Thursday acknowledged that Cheonghaejin Marine is also liable for the accident, citing the overloading of freight and the crewmen who left the passengers behind and escaped.
A government-led committee has offered 470 million won to the families of the Danwon High School student victims for their losses and suffering. The plaintiffs in Thursday's suit refused the compensation, insisting they want a court decision on state liability.
Victims' families expressed disappointment with the court ruling in a press conference outside the courthouse.
"We are not pleased that the court has acknowledged the liability. We take it as a matter of course," Yoo Kyung-geun, a representative of the families told reporters. "We wanted the court to explicitly state what this country had done wrong and to what extent a company should be responsible for their actions, not whether or not they were guilty."
Yoo said the families hope to hear a more favorable judgment in the appeal.
The ruling Democratic Party and minor opposition parties welcomed the court's decision. But the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which was the ruling party when the accident occurred, did not issue any statement.
"This ruling is valuable as it held former President (Park) and her administration accountable for the ferry sinking," the DP said.
"The DP will do its best to find the truth of the ferry sinking as we promised do so for the victims' families and the people." (Yonhap)