China tries a 'good Samaritan' law

The Chinese city of Shenzhen joins other governments around the world in passing a law that tries to remove the fear of legal liability in helping others in emergency distress. Rescuing others out of universal love shouldn't be held back by fear.

Marko Georgiev/The Record of Bergen County/AP Photo
Singer Jon Bon Jovi, flanked by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, speaks in May after Christie signed a law to encourage reporting of overdoses so victims don't end up dead. Just a few months earlier, Bon Jovi's daughter had survived a drug overdose.

Can a person be nudged to save others in peril? On Aug. 1, the Chinese city of Shenzhen will become the latest government to put that question to the test.

A new law in the southern city of 10 million people will provide legal protections for good Samaritans in case their emergency assistance to another somehow results in a lawsuit by the person in need. The goal is to remove the fear of being punished if someone rushes to the rescue of someone else but fails in the attempt or somehow gets blamed.

China has lately experienced a few high-profile cases in which altruists were sued after their efforts did not succeed. But even more on the mind of the Chinese these days are cases in which bystanders ignored someone in distress. The most notable example was a toddler run over by a van and then disregarded by 18 strangers who walked by. The 2011 incident, caught on video, became a spark for national hand-wringing over a perceived moral decline in a society focused on wealth.

The Shenzhen law could spread across China. And it has an echo in the United States where at least a dozen states have recently passed laws to provide immunity for those who report either an emergency involving a drug overdose or dangerous alcohol intoxication, especially for a minor. Since 1999, drug overdoses have nearly tripled in the US.

As in Shenzhen, the goal of such laws is to set aside the fear of legal liability; the state laws aim to protect those who call 911 to report an overdose or extreme intoxication even though they are using a banned substance alongside the person in need of help.

In India, too, a few recent high-profile incidents, such as a 2012 rape in Delhi, have led to calls for similar “good Samaritan” laws. A survey found 3 out of 5 Indians would be unlikely to help a severely injured roadside victim. “The bottom line is very clear: Bystander assistance will significantly improve only if there is immunity from prolonged legal formalities,” stated the survey, which was supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Global Road Safety Partnership.

These immunity laws do not go as far as laws in Europe and a couple of American states that say people have a “duty to rescue” those in imminent peril. But the increasing popularity of the laws reveals a heightened interest in ways to encourage people to follow the message of the biblical parable told by Jesus about the Samaritan who assisted a man left for dead by the roadside.

That message does more than simply encourage selfless charity, which may help account for the global embrace of the term “good Samaritan.” In his tale, Jesus wanted his Jewish followers to love even their enemies – which in their eyes were Samaritans. Love has to be universal, as it comes from God. “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them,” he said.

Rescuing a stranger in an emergency may not always be easy. For many it has resulted in tragedy. But laws that nudge – rather than coerce – such behavior are welcome. They help people see strangers as their neighbors, or as part of a purpose higher than one’s own good.

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