Korean Supreme Court overturns ruling in police damage case against striking SsangYong workers

Posted on : 2022-12-01 16:49 KST Modified on : 2022-12-01 16:49 KST
The top court remanded the case to the Seoul High Court, finding that the workers’ actions during the strike could be deemed self-defense
Ssangyong Motor workers targeted by a state lawsuit seeking damages for industrial action hold a press conference on Aug. 30 outside the National Police Agency headquarters in Seoul calling for the suit to be withdrawn. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)
Ssangyong Motor workers targeted by a state lawsuit seeking damages for industrial action hold a press conference on Aug. 30 outside the National Police Agency headquarters in Seoul calling for the suit to be withdrawn. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)

Six and a half years after a prior ruling against them, the Supreme Court has sided with SsangYong Motor workers. On Wednesday, Korea’s top court ruled in favor of SsangYong Motor workers who went on strike in 2009 and were met with excessive suppression by police forces. After the strike, the police proceeded to file a lawsuit against the strikers, demanding compensation for damages.

According to the Supreme Court, however, the illegal actions taken by the union in response to the excessive suppression tactics by the police — which included, among others, blasting tear gas from helicopters — were ruled acts of self-defense since the methods used by police constituted a threat to the lives and safety of the workers.

On Wednesday, the first division of the Supreme Court (headed by Chief Justice Rho Tae-ak) reversed and remanded a case regarding a lawsuit made by the police against the workers back to the Seoul High Court to be reviewed, citing that the workers’ actions could be deemed self-defense.

In other words, the Supreme Court found that a prior judgment made by an appellate court acknowledging the liability of the workers to pay for the cost of repairing police helicopters and cranes, which accounted for the most part of the police’s claim for damages, was wrong.

The appellate court ordered the union to pay 1.1 billion won in compensation to the police, based on the premise that the use of helicopters and cranes by the police to suppress the demonstrators was justified.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the union, however, the compensation amount had ballooned to more than 3 billion won, since interest was added to the original amount due to delays in payment amidst the long drawn-out trial process.

According to the Supreme Court, “the method of suppressing illegal sit-ins and what equipment to use fall under the police's own discretion, but if such equipment is used to harm someone’s life or body, which is different from what is stated in the law on the use [of such equipment], then the police’s performance of duties must be deemed illegal.”

The Supreme Court also added that "if the union members damaged police equipment in the process of resisting and trying to evade physical harm, this corresponds to self-defense.”

Regarding responsibility for the damage to police cranes, the Supreme Court stated, “The police used expensive cranes to smash obstacles in a way that went beyond the legally stipulated usage method.” The top court also stated the police “actively induced union members to attack during the suppression process,” adding that the appellate court's judgment, which held workers responsible for 80% of the compensation to the police, was excessive.

SsangYong Motor workers went on strike in May 2009 by occupying a plant in protest of the company's plan for massive layoffs aimed at slashing 37 percent of its workforce.

When negotiations between the company and the workers broke down, the police dispatched special forces and riot police to the plant on Aug. 4 and 5 of that year and went on to use tear gas, taser guns, helicopters and cranes to forcibly suppress the strike. Through the intervention of the police, the strike ended on Aug. 6, after lasting 77 days.

After this, the police filed a lawsuit against the workers claiming very expensive damages, saying that police equipment was damaged and officers were injured in the course of the crackdown.

After the verdict on Wednesday, the SsangYong branch of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union held a press conference in front of the Supreme Court and said, “The state was the perpetrator, not the victim,” adding that the act of retaliating against strikes by workers through means such as lawsuits or demanding compensation must be eliminated.

While the National Police Agency did apologize a decade later, in 2019, for its excessive suppression of the strike, it did not withdraw its lawsuit. Instead, it said it would "decide on the direction of future responses after receiving the [court’s] judgment and analyzing it.”

By Shin Min-jung, staff reporter; Jang Na-rye, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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