February 18, 2008
Tort damages for wrongful death in China
Posted by Donald Clarke

As my two-week guest blogging stint is now over, I want to thank Gordon for inviting me and hope that readers found some of this stuff interesting. If you did, I invite you to continue reading over at my regular blog, the Chinese Law Prof Blog. My final post here will be on an interesting aspect of Chinese tort law: the absence of a direct tie between lost income and tort damages for wrongful death.

If you tortiously injure someone in China, the damages are as you might expect: medical expenses, lost income due to missed working time, and maybe even something for emotional distress. (Article 119, General Principles of Civil Law.) Thus, given identical injuries and identical fault, you pay more for punching a doctor than for punching a taxi driver. (I mention these only as examples of high-income and low-income professions, and mean no disrespect to taxi drivers.)

If you go a bit further and end up killing the person, however, in which case they will (if young) have a lot of missed working time, the calculation of damages changes completely. Lost income drops entirely out of the picture, and there is no attempt even to estimate it. Instead, the law switches to an attempt at a need-based standard. The tortfeasor is to pay medical expenses, funeral expenses, "necessary living expenses of the deceased dependents," and "compensation for the victim's death."

These last two terms were specifically defined in an interpretation issued in 2003 by the Supreme People's Court (which has the power to interpret and clarify laws by general rulemaking). "Necessary living expenses" are "calculated on the basis of the average consumption expenditure of those living in the city where the court is located, or the average cost of living for rural residents where the court is located, as the case may be." Clearly, this calculation takes no account of the actual lost income of the decedent; instead, it tries to estimate what the dependents will need to survive at a relatively decent standard of living until they can fend for themselves. Thus, compensation is not apparently paid to adults who have the capacity to work; it is paid only to minors on the basis of the number of years until the minor turns 18, and to other adults unable to work and with no other source of income on the basis of 20 years.

"Compensation for the victim’s death" is, according to the interpretation, "calculated on the basis of 20 times the previous year's average net income of urban residents in the city where the court is located, or the average net income of rural residents where the court is located." As with "necessary living expenses," the actual lost income of the decedent has nothing to do with the amount awarded under the Interpretation.

This system has been criticized in China on the grounds that it discriminates against rural residents by valuing their lives more cheaply than that of urbanites; all lives, say the critics, should be valued equally. To be sure, China does indeed have official discrimination against rural residents; they are explicitly intended to be underrepresented in the National People's Congress, for example. But the problem with this rule is not that it values lives unequally; it is that it values lost income equally: at zero for everyone. Thus, the compensation for lost income is the same (nothing) for wrongful death where the victim is a doctor and where the victim is a taxi driver.

I have heard it argued that this is due to cultural differences: that Chinese (and some civil law jurisdictions) simply view it as wrong to give different amounts of compensation for death. But this misses the point: giving equal compensation for the death itself - in which case there is an argument for treating all lives equally - does not preclude also giving compensation for lost income. And civilian lawyers I have questioned assure me that killing a doctor in their countries does cost more than killing a taxi driver.

Thus, far from being too inegalitarian, the rule in China can be seen as too egalitarian: the dependents of the deceased Shanghai doctor get exactly what the dependents of the deceased Shanghai taxi driver get, even though they have been deprived of much more money. And of course, you get equally inappropriate results when the dependents of urbanites with small earning capacity get more than the dependents of wealthy rural entrepreneurs, for example.

A recent case brought out the importance of location, as well as some of the ambiguities associated with it. A migrant worker living in Beijing was killed in a traffic accident, and because of his rural domicile registration (something that's not easy to change, even though geographical mobility itself has increased greatly in the last several years), the award to his family included only 70,000 yuan (about $9,764) as compensation for death. They appealed, asserting that he should be treated as an urbanite because he was actually living and working in Beijing. The higher court agreed, awarding 170,000 yuan ($23,713), in addition to enhanced amounts under other heads. The case was welcomed by many as an example of "same life, same price," but of course it was just an application of the existing rule, not a negation of it. It showed a willingness to be flexible about which standard to use, but it didn't suggest that the rural-urban distinction was in any way illegitimate.

Although it's not my place to give advice to China's legislators, it seems to me that this problem could be solved relatively easily by allowing courts to include an estimate of lost income in damages for wrongful death - just as they now do in damages for injuries short of death - while separately stipulating another amount to be paid as compensation for the loss of life per se, just to make it clear that the former amount is not compensating for the lost life, and thus carries no offensive implications in being different for different people.

For the time being, though, the moral of this story is: don't pull your punches.

China, Comparative Law, Torts | Bookmark

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