In China, an insurance policy for good Samaritans who get sued

Imagine you see an elderly man fall on a crowded street. You want to help him up, but then reason gets the better of you: You've read reports about injured people extorting small fortunes in healthcare fees from helpful bystanders. You walk past the man, pretending that you've seen nothing.

This scenario is all too common in China. The country lacks a national "good Samaritan law," and a spate of nightmarish extortion stories has provoked soul-searching about a national deficit of trust.

The Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba hopes to change the narrative. Last week, the company's online payment platform Alipay began featuring a "Support the Elderly" insurance plan: Buyers pay the equivalent of about 50 cents a year, and, in return, the Shenzhen-based insurance firm Sinosafe Insurance will cover legal fees of up to $3,100 if the user becomes embroiled in a good Samaritan court case. Several Chinese Web portals reported about the insurance program Monday.

Miranda Shek, a spokeswoman at Ant Financial Services Group, an Alibaba affiliate, said the insurance policy was launched Oct. 15 and has already attracted 26,000 buyers.

"We've noticed that this type of insurance also has a certain social significance and that it can promote the social benefits of insurance," she said in an email. "Therefore, after we discussed this with the relevant insurance company, we designed this type of insurance with the hope of aiding the spread of virtue and positive energy in society."

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Good Samaritan cases gone wrong seem to cause shock waves in the Chinese news media every few years.

In July 2013, a woman in northeastern China's Liaoning province named Wang Lan found an injured elderly woman at a bus stop, took her to the hospital and paid her $30 hospital bill; the elderly woman then accused Wang of knocking her down and attempted to sue her for $6,200.

In 2011, the Chinese public was outraged after a 2-year-old girl in the southern city of Foshan was run over by two vans — and her crushed body was ignored by 18 bystanders — before a female trash collector moved her to the side of the road.

Local governments in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou are drafting regulations to reduce the risk that those who help people in need will be forced to bear catastrophic healthcare costs. The southern city of Shenzhen introduced a good Samaritan law in 2013. No national law is in discussion.

Shek said that to protect against fraud, holders of Support the Elderly insurance must file receipts detailing their legal fees before the insurance company will process their claims.

Being a good Samaritan "shouldn't involve such complicated procedures," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "I expect there will be lots of complicated procedures, a lot of back and forth. But this is no way to treat an issue of beliefs and moral values — I think [the company] is taking a hard approach to a soft problem."

Zhou said he believes public concern about the frequency of disastrous good Samaritan cases is overblown.

"There are about 2 million cases of elderly people falling down per year — in how many of those cases do people refuse to help? Only a few," he said. "The [Chinese] media feel like they have to tackle something. But they can't take on something too big, such as official corruption, so they magnify small cases like this and make people think they're very severe issues."

Users of Weibo, the country's most popular microblog, were divided on the implications of the new insurance policy, with many bemoaning the necessity of a commercial insurance policy to address a public moral failing.

"From now on, when we see an elderly person fall, will our first reaction be to open our Alipay accounts?" wrote one user.

"The existence of this insurance is a tragedy of this society," wrote another.

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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