US compassion: Lost in litigation?

Public outcry is growing in the US at emergency services’ seeming policy of standing by while houses burn down and people drown, if services have not been previously paid for.

­A spate of real-life incidents has sparked concern over what kind of society America is becoming.

The recent series of shocking accidents forced homeowners in one of the counties to watch as their houses and possessions burned to the ground.  And the firefighters were right there watching, as well.

All because the owners didn’t pay the US$75 “fire subscription fee”, known as the “pay for spray” charge.

In the US, fire policy varies from state to state, and from county to county.

In South Fulton, Tennessee, the fire fee policy dates back 30 or so years. The county does not have a county-wide firefighting service, but South Fulton offers fire coverage to rural residents for a fee.

Either you pay the city for fire protection, or face potential disaster.

If you don’t pay, the firefighters do arrive, but only to stop the fire from spreading to the neighboring property, whose owner has paid the fire fee.

In a recent incident, the owners begged to make an exception, saying they were ready to pay whatever it took to put out the blaze.

But they were told it was too late.

A similarly shocking incident occurred in California, where police and firemen watched a man drown, saying they didn’t have proper certifications for water rescue, which would leave them open to possible lawsuits if they attempted to save him.

So as the tragedy unfolded for over an hour, authorities just stood there and did nothing.

Even after the surf brought Raymon Zach’s body closer to the shore, firefighters refused to get in the water and retrieve the corpse, so they waited until a passer-by volunteered to do the job.  

And here lies a moral dilemma: rigid local rules versus the responsibility of the government to help its citizens when they are in trouble. Or rather, versus basic human compassion.

“We are really poor in terms of humanity,” lawyer Carmen Russell Sluchansky told RT. “I mean, when US$75 is the more important thing in a situation like this, it just shows that we have become far too concerned about every single dollar. We just do not live in a community anymore, there is no more sense of shared responsibility for the individuals in the community”.

“The US is a very litigious society,” he goes on. “We have more lawyers per capita than any other country in the world. When you are a rescuer, you have to worry about a lawsuit, and you cannot rescue a person as a result. It is really a problem. If firefighters rescue a man, even save his life, but somehow maybe break a rib or hurt him in some other way, they stand to be sued in court. And that’s the way our system works”

The logic – you don’t get anything unless you pay – makes sense to a lot of Americans. But when you have money and rules on one side of the scale, and humanity, the human urge to help, on the other – and money wins – this is when one gets the sense that something is wrong with the way the system works.