Stores lose case over beef protests

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Stores lose case over beef protests

A local court yesterday dismissed a damage suit filed by 172 store owners in central Seoul who sought compensation from the government and civic groups for business losses during the 2008 violent protests against U.S. beef imports.

After a series of disruptive demonstrations in downtown Seoul to protest the government’s decision to reopen the country’s market to U.S. beef imports, a group of businessmen who operate stores and restaurants near Gwanghwamun filed a lawsuit in July 2008 against rally organizers and the government to cover their business losses and pay compensation. They argued that the rallies from May to July 2008 caused them financial and emotional losses worth more than 1.84 billion won ($1.63 million).

The Seoul Central District Court, however, said yesterday that the store owners cannot seek damage claims under the current law governing demonstrations and dismissed their case.

“The current law is designed to maintain the harmony between freedom of assembly and public order, not to protect individual losses incurred from a rally,” the ruling said.

The court added that illegal demonstrations do not necessarily mean that protesters are automatically responsible to pay compensation.

The court also said the government’s reaction to the rallies was appropriate and as a result the state does not bear responsibility.

In the lawsuit against the People’s Conference against Mad Cow Disease, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements, the store owners said the demonstrators’ seizure of the streets during their rallies had hurt their business. They sought 15 million won each.

They also demanded that the government order the civic groups to pay them compensation, arguing that the administration had prompted the rallies with its “poor negotiation.”

The store owners also said the government failed to protect their personal safety, properties and right to business by allowing the illegal demonstrations. The court said the amount of losses differed for each store, and some actually showed an increase in sales in comparison to that of the previous year.

“Without taking into account the socioeconomic situations and changes in customers’ preference, it is hard to conclude that the demonstrations caused the sales losses,” the court said.

The court also said the demonstrators are responsible to compensate the store owners only if they were aware that their actions would cause losses. “It is difficult to say that the protesters were aware of the business losses at the time of the rallies,” the court said.

Lee Heon, who represents the business owners, expressed disappointment over the decision. “The law governing the rallies promotes the concept of public safety, but the court gave a very narrow interpretation of the law,” said Lee.

“At first, 242 store owners filed the claims, but 70 dropped out in fear of further losses because their identities were revealed. I will consult with the rest of the plaintiffs to decide whether we will appeal or not.”

Days after the store owners filed the lawsuit in July 2008, the People’s Conference against Mad Cow Disease made public the businessmen’s names and addresses on the Internet. The police arrested nine Internet users on charges of posting the information.

By Ser Myo-ja, Koo Hui-lyung []
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