A doctor in central China has found himself 15,000 yuan ($2,300) out-of-pocket after an elderly man he chastised for smoking in an elevator had a fatal heart attack. A district court in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, ordered him to pay compensation to the deceased smoker’s family, Beijing Youth Daily reported Saturday, despite concluding that he did not cause the older man’s death.
The deceased man’s son-in-law, Zhang Yong, originally sued the doctor for 400,000 yuan. The Jinshui District court rejected the plaintiff’s claim in September but nevertheless ordered the defendant to pay 15,000 yuan to the family “on the principle of fairness.” While the doctor agreed to pay the sum as “humanitarian compensation” because he was sorry for the older man’s death, he denied that he was responsible. The deceased man’s relatives have appealed the decision, and the second trial began on Nov. 1.
The fatal incident itself happened in May. The 37-year-old doctor — referred to in the report by the pseudonym Yang Huan — entered the elevator on the 14th floor of a residential building and noticed the elderly man smoking. Yang tried to persuade the 69-year-old not to smoke in the confined space, but to no avail. When the two men exited the elevator on the ground floor, Yang complained to property management staff, then left the scene. Soon after, the older man began having a heart attack, and Yang rushed over.
An ambulance took the man to the hospital, but he did not survive. According to Beijing Youth Daily, Zhang admitted that his father-in-law had a history of heart problems.
On social media, Chinese netizens have responded to the case and its verdict with shock and incredulity. “First of all, smoking in elevators is illegal,” read one highly upvoted comment. “If a thief steals something, and dies of fright when a bystander shouts after him, is the bystander at fault?”
“What if the doctor suddenly got sick from the court’s verdict?” asked another commenter on microblog platform Weibo. “Will the court pay compensation to him ‘on the principle of fairness’?”
With the incident gaining more attention, even experts are weighing in. Xu Guihua, the vice president of the Chinese Association for Tobacco Control, wrote in an article for the organization’s public account on messaging app WeChat that she overheard a waitress at a restaurant say she wouldn’t dare intervene and stop someone from smoking somewhere they shouldn’t be, because she’d never be able to afford to pay if something bad came of it.
“The resulting effect on society might be that more people become indifferent when they encounter someone violating public rights,” Xu said. She explained that such news could exacerbate the bystander effect in China, because many are already reluctant to assist strangers in distress for fear of being blamed and forced to pay compensation: “A few years ago, no one would dare to help elderly people up when they fell down,” she added.
In 2015, several of China’s biggest cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, began rolling out unprecedented smoking bans in all public places — including restaurants, offices, and public transportation — with fines of up to 30,000 yuan for businesses that violate the rules. In Zhengzhou, smoking in elevators has been expressly prohibited for nearly two decades.
Contributions: Lin Qiqing; editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: An elderly man smokes in a public plaza in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, March 2, 2009. An Xin/VCG)