Could a 'Good Samaritan' law help China become more compassionate?

'Good Samaritan' laws around the US and elsewhere shelter those giving aid in emergencies from prosecution and encourage good deeds.

Nir Elias/Reuters/File
Pedestrians wait to cross a road in the center of Shanghai. A traffic accident in October involving a two-year-old girl who was ignored by passersby after having been run over twice raised questions about whether China should have a 'Good Samaritan' law.

The Good Samaritan of Biblical lore was different than you and me: He was able to help without the fear of being sued.

Disturbing footage of an unattended Chinese girl being run over twice and ignored by 18 witnesses has shed unflattering light on China’s civil society. Two-year-old Xiao Yueyue (which translates as Little Joy in Chinese), daughter of two migrant worker parents, died on Oct. 21 in a Guangdong hospital, eight days after the horrific incident.

Disapproving fingers are being pointed in various directions: from the disintegration of society’s morality to the government’s neglect of protecting civil liberties. Yueyue’s unexpected death has revived a fierce international debate over Good Samaritan laws.

If you missed the final "Seinfeld" episode, Good Samaritan laws protect people who assist victims of injury or crime. “They are intended to reduce bystanders' hesitation to assist, for fear of being sued or prosecuted for unintentional injury or wrongful death," as Wikipedia puts it.

Prior to the broadcasting of Yueyue’s tragedy, several sensational lawsuits had embittered the public toward performing heroic deeds for strangers. Specifically, in 2007 an elderly woman sued a young man by the name of Peng Yu for escorting her to the hospital after she had fallen and broken her leg. Mr. Peng was ordered to pay the damages to the elder woman under the judge’s logic that the man wouldn’t have helped her unless he was guilty of injuring her in the first place. Some litigators suggest that lawsuits of this nature  create legal disparity between the affluent and the less privileged. Perhaps had the woman not belonged to the poorer class, in need of money, no such lawsuit would have been filed.

A recent China Daily poll reveals that approximately 87 percent of Chinese citizens are unlikely to aid an elderly person who has fallen in the street because they want to avoid being blamed for the accident. “The public's lack of a sense of trust has been made obvious by recent media stories that have looked at the hesitation people feel before they come to someone else's aid," Xie Jing, a communications professor at Fudan University, told the newspaper.

While Good Samaritan Laws in the United States are not federally imposed, the largest jurisdictions in the United States – New York, California, and Texas – have statutes that shield voluntary assistants from liability in the case of an accident. Yet “Good Samaritans” in California and Vermont may be prosecuted if they don’t act in the medical interest of the victim. In 2007 a woman who pulled a friend out of a wrecked car, leaving the friend paralyzed, was liable to civil damages in California because  “the perceived danger of remaining in the wrecked car was not "medical," the court ruled.”

One explanation for not imposing more collective responsibility on individuals: separation of morals and law.

"Our common law has always refused to transmute moral duties into legal duties,” Virginia Law Professor Charles O. Gregory noted to Time Magazine in 1965, when the killing of a woman within earshot of dozens of her neighbors prompted a national debate about civic duty. Today, every state has some form of Good Samaritan law protecting people from liability for trying to save a life, according to HeartSafe America.

In Canada, too, each province has its own set of laws concerning Good Samaritan acts. Quebec’s Charter of Rights gives citizens a "duty to rescue:" individuals must assist anyone in jeopardy, unless there is reasonable evidence that it would cause danger to himself or a third party. Abstaining from helping someone is not considered a criminal offense, since it comes from the provincial level. Yet the majority of provinces have adopted a version of the Good Samaritan Law, most of which provide some form of protection for voluntary passers-by from liability for the victim’s damages, unless it can be proven that the damages were caused by the gross negligence of the person.

In France, witnesses to a person in distress can be arrested for not intervening.  A Frenchman who fails to help another when he can do so without risk is liable for up to five years in prison and fined several thousands in Euros. The French logic follows that a witness is a participant in the crime if he/she does nothing to prevent it.

In spite of the outrage bubbling in China over society’s apparent moral decline, the majority of the population is reluctant to follow in France’s footsteps. According to one online poll, 77.7 percent of Chinese respondents disagree with the idea of establishing a "duty to rescue" law. Most claim they don’t want moral acts to be legally enforced. With restrictions on individual freedom already so tightly monitored, the Chinese appear weary to have one more government mandate imposed.

It took the death of a two-year-old girl to bring greater awareness to what it means to do the right thing. Perhaps what is most disturbing about Yueyue’s death is the realization that an underlying current of fear has become inherently attached to what should be a visceral reaction of compassion. Had the Samaritan described by Luke in the New Testament been bound by today’s laws, perhaps he would not have been so good.

This article first appeared on Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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