Thu, May 02, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Why should the government pay?

The Taipei City District Court's ruling Monday on the collapse of the Tunghsing building during the 921 earthquake declared Taipei City's Public Works Bureau responsible for compensating the families of building residents who were killed or injured. While it is good that the plaintiffs will finally get some compensation for their pain and suffering, the verdict is cause for concern.

The principle of compensation adopted by Judge Chen Po-wen (陳博文) -- that the government entity that issued the construction license for the building has the responsibility to inspect the construction -- places the burden of proof in the wrong place, putting tremendous pressure on civil servants as well as on the nation's finances. His awarding NT$3 million for each person killed and NT$300,000 each of those injured, may also lead to controversy.

Nevertheless, the verdict has sent an important message -- when public interests are damaged because a civil servant fails to perform a duty that protects public interests, then the state should be responsible for compensation. The Supreme Court has not always had such a view. For example, the cases stemming from the Sun Moon Lake boat capsizing and the fire at the Welcome KTV in Taichung, the court rejected demands for state compensation. The judges ruled that the public had no right to demand that the state conduct safety inspections of boating companies or KTVs.

But the question remains: Should the Public Works Bureau be responsible for the actual inspection of construction sites or just reviewing the necessary paperwork? The ruling appears to place the burden for on-site inspections squarely upon the city government. Officials familiar with compensation cases believe the judge's interpretation leaves room for debate. The ruling appears to confuse the city government's responsibilities with those of a construction supervisor or an architect. It is almost impossible for the city's Public Works Bureau to check all construction designs as well as conduct on-site inspections during the construction process to look for shoddy workmanship or materials. The bureau does not have the manpower or budget or legal authority to guarantee the construction of each and every building.

The ruling also places the burden of proof on the government to show that its bureaucrats are not responsible. An official at the Ministry of Justice said the burden of proof in all state compensation cases is on the plaintiff to prove that a civil servant was deliberately derelict in his or her duties.

It is also worth pointing out that calculation of compensation usually incorporates the economic status of the victims. Awarding a uniform amount to the family of each person killed regardless of their status is unusual and blurs the division between state compensation and social insurance payouts. Even though it may prevent some disputes, it also does away with the spirit of fairness whereby each family's situation is taken into account.

Linking state compensation to the responsibility of the government's construction management agencies will have a far-reaching impact. It will put civil servants in the line of fire and may make them more reluctant to make decisions for fear of being held financially accountable. Monday's ruling expands the government's responsibilities dramatically. If compensation for all 921 victims are handled according to the precedent set by Judge Chen, the drain on the treasury would be enormous. Compensation payments would become a black hole that risk absorbing the entire budget. Compensation should be paid by those who are truly at fault -- in this case, by the builders and architects who actually oversaw construction of the Tunghsing Building and other structures that collapsed during the quake.

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