Subway Fall Lawsuit Highlights Dangers of Smartphone Distraction

2017-05-19 10:44:05

Attention, commuters: Next time you’re on a train, hold on to the handrail instead of your mobile phone.

A court in Beijing ruled against a woman surnamed Shen who sued the city’s subway company after she fell and cracked her skull when her train came to a sudden stop. Though the court had initially decided the company was mostly responsible for the commuter’s fall, a later appeal placed most of the blame on Shen because, according to the defendant, she had neglected her own safety — she was busy on her phone instead of holding on to a handrail.

China has an estimated 1.3 billion cellphone users, a statistic that has given rise to numerous news stories of injuries and even deaths because people were distracted by their phones. The country’s phone addicts even have their own caustic nickname: ditouzu, or “lowered-heads tribe.” Although the verdict of Shen’s case was passed at the end of 2016, Procuratorate Daily, the newspaper of the country’s public investigator and prosecutor, reported on the lawsuit on Wednesday, explaining in detail why the 27-year-old was more at fault than the subway company.

After her fall in January 2015, Shen was hospitalized for 20 days with a fractured skull and remained bedridden and unable to work for eight months. She sued the subway company, demanding 240,000 yuan ($35,000) in compensation for medical expenses and loss of income. A Beijing court eventually ordered a 117,000 yuan settlement. But the Beijing Subway Operation Company argued that CCTV footage clearly indicated that Shen fell because she had been gazing at her phone. On appeal, the company’s share of responsibility was reduced to 40 percent and the compensation payment was cut to 56,200 yuan.

Beijing is home to one of the world’s busiest mass transit systems and transports an estimated 10 million people — more than the entire population of London — every day. The capital’s subway often comes under scrutiny for safety-related issues that have left commuters injured during peak travel hours.

As cellphones are increasingly becoming a safety hazard, authorities are introducing measures to help travelers get from place to place without incident. Earlier this year, Shanghai revised its road traffic regulations, strictly forbidding drivers to use any electronic devices while on the road. And in April, a local court sentenced a man to 10 months in prison and one year of probation for causing a fatal accident because he used his phone while driving — the first verdict since the revised regulations came into force.

Meanwhile, the southwestern city of Chongqing has found a more personal way to convince people to take a break from their digital devices while commuting. “If a couple are destined to be together, they will meet even if they are separated across 1,000 li,” read a recent advertisement on the city’s subway, punning on a proverb that refers to a traditional Chinese unit of distance. “But if they are playing on their phones, they could be face-to-face and not meet one another.”

Contributions: Huang Yimin; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Subway passengers engrossed in their mobile phones, Shanghai, Sept. 11, 2015. Yi Xin/VCG)