A Japanese court on Thursday found the president of a bus operator and a former operations manager guilty and handed them prison terms in connection with a crash in 2016 that killed 15 people in a mountain resort town in central Japan.

The Nagano District Court gave Misaku Takahashi, president of the Tokyo-based company ESP, a three-year prison sentence and Tsuyoshi Arai, the operations manager at the time of the crash, four years for professional negligence that resulted in death and injury over the accident in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.

In handing down the ruling, the court said Takahashi "neglected his duties" by failing to ensure the bus driver who died had been "trained sufficiently," despite Arai having been "informed that the driver had not operated large buses at a previous company."

Photo taken June 8, 2023, shows the Nagano District Court. (Kyodo)

Presiding Judge Hiroshi Ono said the accident "was the result of combined negligence" by the two men.

The court also recognized that the two should have been able to foresee that an accident might occur, as both had been aware of the driver's lack of experience driving larger vehicles.

It noted that the accident was brought about by the company's continued prioritization of profits and disregard for safety.

Takahashi, 61, and Arai, 54, were ushered onto the witness stand by the judge where they both apologized.

The point of contention during the trial was whether Takahashi and Arai could have predicted the accident even though they were not present at the crash site.

The two had pleaded not guilty, while prosecutors had demanded five-year prison terms for both men.

In the early hours of Jan. 15, 2016, an ESP ski trip charter bus careened off a road in Karuizawa after hitting a guardrail. Two drivers and 13 university students aboard were killed, while 26 others were injured.

According to the ruling, Hiroshi Tsuchiya, who was driving at the time of the accident, had little experience piloting large buses like the one involved in the crash, and was unable to properly operate the gears or brakes as the bus went down a hill.

The prosecutors said during the trial that the company could have foreseen the accident given the inexperience of Tsuchiya, 65, but still allowed him to work despite him previously expressing concern about driving a vehicle of that size.

The defense counsel said that Tsuchiya did not apply the brake as the bus was going downhill, arguing it was difficult to predict that any certified driver would fail to take such a basic action.