Posted by Joel Martinsen on Friday, September 7, 2007 at 9:12 PM
In retrospect, something like this was bound to happen eventually.
In China's public transit system, bus and subway riders are supposed to get off before new passengers board - at least in principle. But in practice, there's a slight possibility that you'll brush against someone in the process.
In the event that someone gets seriously injured when boarding a bus, should you help them? If you do, you'd better hope that the court shares your idea of common sense - a court in Nanjing recently assigned blame on the basis of a few leaps of logic that have left people scratching their heads.
On 20 November, 2006, at around 9:30 in the morning, Ms. Xu, a 65-year-old woman, was trying to board a bus in Nanjing. She was knocked to the ground and broke her left hip.* A 26-year-old man named Peng Yu was the first passenger off the bus at that station. He went over to assist Xu, and he helped take her to the hospital once her family members arrived. He also gave her 200 yuan.
Xu says that Peng was the person who knocked her down; Peng claims that it was someone behind him who collided with Xu; he went over to help her out of the goodness of his heart.
Xu sued Peng for 136,419.3 yuan, a sum that included 40,000 yuan in medical expenses, 72,000 in compensation for bodily injury, and 15,000 yuan in compensation for emotional suffering. The Gulou District Court in Nanjing found for Xu this week, deciding that Peng was liable for 40% of 114,690.9 yuan (a recalculated total), or 45,876.36 yuan (US$6,076).
No good deed goes unpunished, eh? That's the prevailing sentiment among BBS commenters. Or, as commentator Wang Lin puts it in The Beijing News, "If things continue like this, in the future when we see someone who's fallen down, will be go and help them up?" The implied answer: of course not!
Bullog boss Lao Luo posted the judgment on his blog, where he expressed his disgust at the defeatism present in the response of much of the BBS world. Under the title "Give Integrity One More Chance," he announced plans to set up a fund for Peng Yu. Here's his reasoning:
1. Having read all of the posts, I tend to believe Peng Yu. However, I ask you to make your own decision based on the materials you can find. Do not donate simply because I have said something. If in the future I am proven to be wrong, then you can condemn me, but don't complain about it.
2. I won't say anything about grandma Xu, for I can't be 100% sure that she's lying. If Xu did this out of poverty, then I sympathize with her, and I ask all of you not to condemn her.
3. If Peng Yu does not appeal, or if his appeal fails, then I'll consider the money as compensation for his being punished for doing a good deed (this is my personal belief). If Peng Yu appeals and wins, then I will still turn the money over to him as a way of expressing my respect for someone who has done a good deed (as I believe him to be).
4. The local Jinling Evening News in Nanjing said "Regardless of who is right and who is wrong in this incident, the negative effect it has on society is quite large, and has the danger to directly damage social trust." I agree with this statement, so I feel that even if Peng Yu was the one who knocked the old woman to the ground, donating money is still meaningful. Perhaps in doing this we let a scoundrel off lightly (we were not at the scene, so we cannot rule this out completely), but your actions will warm the hearts countless people who want to do good in the future. This is much more important than simply helping one individual.
As heart-warming as this is, it's the court's analysis that is the focus of more serious discussion. There was no hard evidence presented in the case, and no witnesses to testify that Peng collided with Xu. Consequently, the judges appealed to "common sense" and "reason" in their verdict.
Here's an excerpt from the judgment that displays the sort of "common sense" the judges used to determine that Peng Yu knocked Xu to the ground (paragraph breaks have been added):
1. Using daily life experience to analyze things, in addition to falling as a result of colliding with another person, the plaintiff could have tripped or slipped to the ground. However, during the trial neither party's account mentioned the plaintiff tripping or slipping, nor did the defendant provide any counter evidence that this could be the case. The evidence presented in this case strongly points to the plaintiff being pushed to the ground by an outside force. When someone is pushed to the ground, a typical first reaction is to determine where that force came from, to identify the person with whom the collision took place. If the person who struck them has fled, then the first reaction of the individual who has fallen is to call for assistance and urge others to help stop that person.
The present case took place in a relatively well-trafficked bus station, a public place, during mid-morning when visibility was relatively good. The incident was very brief, so the person who knocked the plaintiff to the ground could not easily have fled. According to the defendant's own admission, he was the first person off the bus. Using common sense, there is a very high possibility that he collided with the plaintiff.
If the defendant was acting heroically in performing a good deed, then a more realistic action would have been to catch the person who collided with the plaintiff, rather than merely having good intentions and helping her up. If the defendant was performing a good deed, then according to sociological reasoning, when the plaintiff's family arrived, he could have stated the facts clearly, had the plaintiff's family take her to the hospital, and then departed the scene. But the defendant did not make this choice; his actions are conspicuously at odds with reason.
4. The defendant gave the plaintiff 200 yuan on the day of the incident but never asked for it back. The plaintiff and defendant both acknowledge that the money was given, but they provide different accounts of its motivation. The plaintiff believes that it was a preliminary advance on compensation money; the defendant believes that it was a loan. According to the experience of daily life, the plaintiff and defendant, never having met before, would in general not rashly loan money. Even if, as the defendant claims, it was a loan, then when there was the chance that he would be seen as accepting responsibility for the accident, he ought to have asked a disinterested individual at the bus station to be a witness, or asked the plaintiff's family for an IOU (or statement) in writing after describing the situation. However, there is no record of the defendant doing so in the present case; moreover, with the plaintiff's family accompanying her to the hospital, the likelihood of him lending money to the plaintiff is rather small.
In addition, if one has injured someone in a collision, the most appropriate action is to offer preliminary compensation. The witness for the defense testified that the plaintiff and defendant went to the police station to handle the accident; from this fact we can deduce that the plaintiff believed that it was the defendant, and not another individual, who had knocked her to the ground. It would be even more unlikely for the defendant to lend money to the plaintiff under such circumstances. Summing up the above analysis, we can determine that the money was compensation, and not a loan.
In the Beijing Youth Daily, commentator Cai Fanghua dissects the judges' reasoning and what it holds for society:
From the judgment we can see that the chief justice at the Gulou District Court in Nanjing has made conspicuous use of the principle of free evaluation of evidence. However, it was not used very appropriately overall, and shows a tendency toward "super-free evaluation by inner conviction" and possible misuse of the power of discretion.
The terms "analyzing from common sense," "more realistic actions," and "at odds with reason" appear several times in the Gulou Court's decision. It is here where the judge makes use of his own experience of human life to perform logical deductions on the facts of the case, forming an "inner conviction." Unfortunately, the "common sense" and "reason" to which the chief judge refers is precisely the coldness and non-involvement that mainstream values have long opposed. According to the judge's "common sense," if Peng Yu could not catch the person who knocked down the old woman, he should not have come to assist her; rather, he should have left things as they were and gone off. According to the judge's "reason," Peng Yu should have departed after the old woman's family showed up; he should not have sent them to the hospital, much less lent them any money. It is precisely because Peng Yu exhibited such warm-hearted, "uncommon" values that the judge's "free evaluation" pegged him as the one who knocked the old woman down. How absurd this is! How chilling!
I say that the chief judge revealed a tendency toward "super-free evaluation of evidence through inner conviction" because the court manifestly violated the fundamental principle of civil trials, "He who makes the claim provides the evidence," and its selective use of the evidence is truly mystifying. The plaintiff did not provide strong, direct evidence; the only indirect evidence, a mobile-phone image of a police-station transcript, was taken by the old woman's son. Strangely, the original document "disappeared" at the police station, and the station head had claimed that the mobile phone picture was taken by him. But this questionable evidence apparently convinced the court. However, Mr. Chen, a citizen at the scene of the incident who saw the old woman with his own eyes "fall down for an unknown reason," and Peng Yu "go up to help" the old woman after she had fallen, was thought by the court to be insufficient proof that the old woman was not knocked down by Peng. By using one piece of evidence and ignoring the other, the judge revealed a disregard for common sense and a subjective, absurd evaluation of the value of the evidence.
In this case, the inappropriateness of the judge's inner conviction is clear to see. Hence, the authority of this verdict is greatly diminished. It has harmed the public's trust in the law and the sanctity of the law itself.
The revulsion of the people toward the decision in Peng Yu's case awakens us to an important issue: free evaluation by judges in civil cases is unavoidable. This presents an obvious dilemma for our judiciary. Judges are not highly educated, external influences on the court are complex, and there is insufficient oversight of civil trials. The presence of these factors mean that judges' power of discretion is in danger of becoming a black box, or of succumbing to judicial corruption.
Whether truth and justice will return in Peng Yu's appeal is a critical question for both the law and ethics. To quote an old saying: we must wait and see.
In the meantime, it's probably best to look both ways before getting off a bus.
Correction: This article originally identified Ms. Xu's injury as a broken collarbone.
UPDATE: Lao Luo received a letter from Peng Yu thanking him for the fund-raising effort but refusing the money. Peng also said that he intended to appeal.
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