A burst oil pipeline in the coastal city of Dalian in northeastern China has damaged the local fishing and tourism industries, according to a new report by Greenpeace. Hundreds of Americans affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are suing BP for damages. Can Chinese locals do the same against the China National Petroleum Corp.?
Yes. China had a barely functioning legal system through the 1960s and 1970s. Only after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 and the passage of the General Principles of Civil Law in 1986 was a solid framework for litigation established. Since then, China has built up a robust torts system, culminating in a new tort liability law that took effect on July 1. The main purpose of the law is to compile all the existing torts provisions under one umbrella statute. It also strengthens the ability of plaintiffs to bring suit by shifting the burden of proof in environmental cases to polluters, making Web sites liable for defamatory content on their sites even if they didn't produce it, enabling patients to sue doctors for medical malpractice more easily, and adding mental distress to the list of justifications for lawsuits. Whether the new law actually results in more suits and victories for plaintiffs depends on how strongly it's enforced.
Tort lawsuits in China have risen steadily since the 1980s, as high-profile accidents like the 2005 explosion at the Jilin chemical plant, which spilled toxins into the Songhua River, have raised awareness about environmental and property damages. In 2008, Chinese courts heard more than 1 million tort claims, about 1,400 of which were filed against businesses that caused environmental damage.
Most big cases, though, never make it to court. That's partly because courts, which are often controlled by politicians, simply reject the complaints out of hand. For example, when parents of children killed by collapsing schools during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province tried to sue school and local authorities, courts refused to hear their case. Instead, companies usually strike deals with would-be plaintiffs according to compensation packages approved by the government. When 300,000 Chinese children became sick in 2008 from tainted condensed milk, for example, the state arranged a $160 million compensation package that would give $29,000 to each family that lost a child, $4,400 if a child suffered kidney damage, and $290 for less severe cases. Many parents rejected the deal, and Chinese courts eventually let them file lawsuits instead.
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Explainer thanks George W. Conk of the Fordham University School of Law and Benjamin Liebman of the Columbia University School of Law.