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Man wins W1.4b, putting to bed legal battle surrounding wife’s death

Nov. 3, 2023 - 11:40 By Lim Jae-seong
Yeosu Coast Guard recovers Park's car on Geumo Island, Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, Jan. 1, 2019. (Yoesu Coast Guard)

The Supreme Court on Thursday confirmed that a man in his 50s surnamed Park is eligible to receive 1.2 billion won ($900,000) in compensation for the death of his wife, surnamed Kim, as well as an additional 240 million won in compensation for the delay in receiving an initial payout, which should have been awarded in 2020.

The ruling follows the top court's previous ruling which found Park guilty of causing death by negligence in 2020. The prosecution at the time had sought murder charges against Park.

The second division of the Supreme Court presided over by Chief Justice Cheon Dae-yeop sided with Park, ruling that he is eligible to receive a payout from the National Credit Union Federation of Korea and two insurance companies, upholding the Seoul High Court’s decision, according to local media reports.

The ruling ends Park's four-year legal battle against the prosecution and insurance institutes who suspected that he had deliberately killed his wife in 2018 on Geumo Island, Yeosu, South Jeolla Province.

Dubious circumstances

The circumstances around Kim's death remain unclear, as there were no witnesses in the vicinity of the incident, which occurred next to the sea on a winter's night on a sparsely inhabited island.

Kim died from drowning after the car she was in fell into the water.

The accident occurred at 10 p.m. on December 31, 2018. Park had gotten out of the car, leaving it in neutral, to check the exterior of his vehicle after bumping into a fence.

Park's car rolled along the dock and into the water. One of the car's windows was open, which allowed water to quickly overwhelm the car. Park said he had opened the window earlier to get some fresh air.

Kim reportedly called 119 to ask for help as the car sank, but she was found dead an hour later.

Security camera footage near the location shows that Park went to a nearby residence minutes after the accident to ask for help instead of attempting to help his wife.

The couple traveled to the area to catch the New Year sunrise, having married three weeks before the accident.

Park's car rolled from the dock and fell into the water on Dec. 31, 2018, on Geumo Island, Yeosu, South Jeolla Province. (Yeosu Coast Guard)

The prosecution argued that Park had deliberately caused the accident in order to receive life insurance payouts from six different insurance policies, which totaled 1.75 billion won.

The insurance policies were Park's idea, which he introduced to Kim in September 2018. Park worked as an insurance planner at the time. After the two married in December, the beneficiary of Kim's insurance policies was changed, making Park and his younger brother the recipients.

The prosecution also maintained that since Park is an experienced driver, such an accident would have been unlikely to have occurred as the result of a mistake on Park's part.

According to the prosecution, Park has 20 years of driving experience, and driving had been a part of his profession for some of that time. The prosecution also cited the fact that the vehicle did not start moving immediately when Park got out of the car.

Park insisted that he forgot to lock the brakes and mistakenly thought that he had put the car into park, as he was flustered from bumping into the fence.

In the initial criminal trial, the Gwangju District Court found Park guilty of murder, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Overturned rulings

Ultimately, the lack of evidence led to the decision being overturned, both in the criminal case which had found Park guilty and in the civil procedures over the insurance payouts.

Gwangju High Court overturned the lower court's criminal ruling, citing "reasonable doubt" that Park might not have deliberately caused Kim's death.

The appellate ruling was confirmed by the Supreme Court in September 2020, despite strong opposition from Kim's children, who hailed from her previous marriage.

The top court nullified the sentence of life imprisonment and sentenced him to three years in prison, acknowledging that her death was caused by his negligence.

The Supreme Court found that the car had been on a very gentle slope at the sight of the docks, saying that it could have rolled with even the slightest momentum, which could have been caused by the movement of a passenger inside the car. Park might not have known that the car could have moved in that situation, the court explained.

The court also could not find evidence that Park led or coerced Kim to change the beneficiary of her life insurance policies, and that Park had not been in urgent need of money, since he had a stable income at the time and had been taking part in a court-administered financial rehabilitation program since 2017.

The Supreme Court, Seocho-dong, southern Seoul (Herald DB)

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling was announced as the NACUFOK and two insurance companies, Meritz Fire & Marine Insurance and Lotte Non-Life Insurance, continued to deny Park the 1.2 billion won in compensation, even after his murder verdict was overturned.

Earlier in December, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that the institutes did not have to pay Park, citing the fact that it was “highly probable that (the death) was deliberate,” in response to the civil lawsuit Park had filed against them.

The Seoul High Court overturned the ruling as the appellate court assessed there was not enough evidence to prove Park's intention to murder Kim, but acknowledged the doubt surrounding the circumstances. This ruling from the second trial was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.