[REPORTER’S DIARY]How to cure a ‘safety last’ cultureThe subway fire in Daegu was just the latest in a series of disgraceful accidents in Korea’s modern history. There is every indication that this time, too, the people or organizations responsible will not pay for their deeds. All the talk about improving public safety is likely to remain mostly that, talk, maybe with some inconsequential changes.
One of the reasons these incredible accidents keep happening, sometimes repeatedly in the same place, is that people in this country do not sue each other for astronomical sums of money.
Punitive damages is a Western legal concept that has made the single largest contribution to making the countries that have adopted it safer places to live. In a civil case brought by a victim, when the jury finds that the defendant caused the injury ― whether through action or negligence ― it orders him to pay compensation for the victim’s suffering. On top of that, as punishment, punitive damages equivalent sometimes to 10 or more times the actual damage caused can be tacked on. In egregious cases, the total amount of damages awarded could cripple a business.
Consider these cases: A young girl dies in a movie theater fire. Her family sues the theater corporation and wins $7 million in damages. You fall and break your hipbone walking in front of a store because the owner did not clear away ice and snow. You sue and recover $800,000. A toddler chokes to death on a piece of rubber that came off a toy. His parents sue the manufacturer for $5 million.
These are lawsuits that never get filed in Korea. Instead, the family of a man killed when a department store collapsed gets $168,000 from a pool of relief funds contributed by the government, the public and the department store. A 1995 gas explosion in the Daegu subway paid out $219,000, again from a relief fund. An overcrowded ferry sinks ― $83,000 per death.
These are the relatively generous examples. What is more likely is a factory worker losing a hand and getting $5,000 in compensation, or a pedestrian paralyzed when hit by a bus and receiving $20,000.
Each year, thousands of Koreans and their families suffer a second outrage when they are awarded compensation that falls far short of the damage, pain and suffering they went through in accidents that did not have to happen.
It happens because the Korean legal system does not allow the kind of punitive damages that could bankrupt a company or a public organization. Behind that is the lack of a tradition of civil litigation before a jury. Instead, punishment in Korea is either administrative or criminal. Neither has showed much of a corrective effect on the people or institutions that cause these disasters.
It would be more effective to make the defendant pay ― literally. The idea is simple mathematics. Let’s say, for example, that each of the families of the victims who died in the Daegu subway fire is entitled to sue the subway corporation or the city and collect $5 million in compensation for the victim’s lost future income and the family’s emotional suffering, plus punitive damages. Since there are at least 200 victims, the total damages that would be paid out would be $1 billion or more. With that precedent, the Daegu subway, and all the other entities that run subway systems, would find it less expensive to replace all their stock with fireproof materials than to face similar lawsuits. The latest estimate for fireproofing all the Daegu’s subway is just $95 million.
What would move a corporation that deals with the safety of the public more effectively than anything else is money, because, when faced with crippling damage settlements, it would be cheaper to make things safer than to pay the damages. Finding out what went wrong is important. But it must be followed up by making sure that the corporations pay for the failure to ensure safety. Money is the blood of a corporation.
* The writer is a staff writer of the JoongAng Daily.
by Kim Young-sae