Photo/IllutrationJunko Watanabe speaks at a news conference in Tokyo on Feb. 8 after a settlement was reached over the death of her son, Kota, shown in the photo. (Koichi Murakami)

In a case called a “warning” to corporate Japan, a company agreed to pay settlement money to the family of an exhausted employee who died in an accident while returning home after a long overnight shift.

Green Display Co., a Tokyo-based company that decorates building interiors with plants, will pay about 76 million yen ($700,000) and apologize to the bereaved family of Kota Watanabe, who was killed in a traffic accident in 2014 at the age of 24, according to the settlement reached at the Kawasaki branch of the Yokohama District Court on Feb. 8.

Presiding Judge Hidechika Hashimoto had urged the company to settle the lawsuit filed by the family, saying Green Display bore a responsibility for the safety of the employee on his return home from work.

Hashimoto also said the case should send a message to companies and society as a whole to take measures to prevent “karo-jikoshi” (death from accidents resulting from overwork).

It is extremely rare for a court to say that companies have a duty to consider the safety of their employees when they return home, said Takuya Kawagishi, a lawyer for the family

Watanabe was driving his motorcycle to his home in Yokohama from his workplace in Tokyo on April 24, 2014, after finishing a midnight shift.

He was killed when his motorbike hit a utility pole slightly after 9 a.m.

In 2015, his mother, Junko, sued the company for about 100 million yen in compensation, saying her son’s long working hours led to the fatal accident.

Hashimoto said the accident was caused by Watanabe nodding off on his motorcycle. He said the company recognized that Watanabe was in a “state of overwork” and should have instructed him to take other means home, such as public transportation, to avoid an accident.

Regarding the terms of the settlement, the judge not only urged 76 million yen in pay but also asked Green Display to continue taking the measures it adopted after Watanabe’s death to prevent a recurrence.

For example, the company requires an 11-hour gap between the end of one shift and the start of the next one. The company is also calling on employees to take taxis home after their midnight shifts.

“I hope that other companies will also take sufficient preventive measures against karo-jikoshi,” Junko said at a news conference in Tokyo on Feb. 8.

Hashimoto mentioned the likelihood that many accidents are occurring as a result of overwork.

“This case should serve as momentum for wider recognition of the karo-jikoshi category as a labor-related accident, and spurring sufficient measures taken in society toward the prevention of karo-jikoshi, as well as ‘karoshi’ (death from overwork) and ‘karo-jisatsu’ (suicide from overwork),” Hashimoto said.

According to Shigeru Wakita, professor emeritus of labor law at Ryukoku University, companies in general do not bear responsibility for accidents caused by their employees when they are on their way to work or returning home.

“(In Watanabe’s case), the presiding judge emphasized the overwork he was engaged in until immediately before the accident, and said that the company had a duty to pay consideration to his safety, even in the case of an accident that he himself caused on his way home,” Wakita said. “It is epoch-making. This case will serve as a warning to other firms.”