Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Time for a law to aid helping hands

By Harvey Dzodin (China Daily) Updated: 2012-02-02 08:00

Along with most of the rest of the country, and indeed the world, whose negative attention it unfortunately attracted, I was nauseated by the story of 2-year-old Yue Yue, who was ignored by 18 passers-by when she was run over twice in Foshan, Guangdong province.

At the time there was nationwide soul searching about what to do and much breast-beating about the sad state of morality in the country. Some commentators said that people in China only help their families and nobody else, others suggested that because China is a developing country everyone is only looking out for themselves. I don't agree with either of these views. Look at the outpouring of grief and compassion here for the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, or at smaller recent examples, such as last month in Wenzhou, where bystanders rescued a 5-year-old girl after she was trapped under the wheels of a car.

As a lawyer, I think the best suggestion that came out of Yue Yue's death was the proposal that China introduce a good Samaritan law. In common law jurisdictions such as the United States and England, such laws protect people who help others from being successfully sued when coming to the aid of another person, except in cases of gross negligence. In civil law jurisdictions, such as much of Europe, there is a duty for passers-by to come to the aid of a victim and failure to do so can result in a prosecution.

It is clear to me that Chinese people would like to be good Samaritans but feel constrained by the fear of being sued by the victim or someone masquerading as a victim. In a recent public opinion poll of Beijing residents, 87 percent said that people do not help senior citizens who have fallen because "they want to avoid trouble". I have the same fear.

In several highly reported and widely discussed cases, Chinese courts have held that good Samaritans were legally liable for another person's injuries because nobody would have helped the victim unless they had caused the problem. But this presumption of guilt flies in the face of Chinese norms where always being ready to help others for a just cause and never hesitating to do what is right, have been core societal virtues since at least Confucius' time.

Wang Shengjun, president of the Supreme People's Court, has recognized that such warped rulings weaken the legal system and last month he implored chief justices with provincial high courts to "legally protect good Samaritans" and to not let them be misjudged.

Two major cities have already proposed good Samaritan laws. Shenzhen's proposal takes a common law approach to protecting good Samaritans, except in cases of gross negligence. It wisely goes beyond the Western model, in that it also establishes a fund to financially reward such exemplary behavior. It also does something brilliant in that it punishes those despicable people who falsely accuse others of injuring them. The penalty includes fines and imprisonment. It also avoids imposing a duty to rescue, which a recent survey found more than three-fourths of respondents opposed.

Shanghai has taken a different, but flawed path. They propose financially rewarding people (or their heirs) for heroic deeds. This does nothing whatsoever to shield good Samaritans from being successfully sued for their good deeds.

A national good Samaritan law would enable people to act on their instincts and help build a harmonious society. As Albert Schweitzer, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his "Reverence for Life" philosophy, said: "As the sun makes ice melt; kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate".

The author is a senior advisor to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.

(China Daily 02/02/2012 page8)

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