Taiwan's High Court: Rescuers Not Responsible for Hikers' Safety

Taiwan's High Court: Rescuers Not Responsible for Hikers' Safety
Photo Credit: Flickr picturesfromcolin

What you need to know

A decision holding rescue teams responsible for the death of a hiker has been overturned.

Taiwan's High Court ruled on Dec. 27 that search-and-rescue teams will not be held culpable for compensation demanded by family members of a hiker who died in the mountains for central Taiwan’s Nantou County in 2011, overturning a prior ruling in 2015. The university student was hiking alone.

Parents of Chang Po-wei (張博崴), then a medical student at National Sun Yat-sen University demanded that the government search and rescue team pay NT$6.65 million (US$224,000) in damages for negligence in the rescue of their son. A lower court in Taipei had ruled in favor of the family in 2015, ordering the government to pay damages totaling NT$2.66 million.

That ruling was the first requiring government rescue teams to compensate a victim’s family, and the rescuers appealed the case. At the time, the incident touched off a stormy debate, with other rescuers claiming that Chang was responsible for his own death for having set out alone, and that the demand for government compensation was unreasonable.

Climber proceeded despite unpreparedness: court

In the ruling, the Taiwan High Court stated that citizens had no right to claim that the government guarantee their safety on mountain expeditions. It also added that no reliable GPS data on Chang’s location was available and that Chang had continued to move despite being lost, complicating the search and rescue operation.

The court stated that Nantou County search personnel had immediately moved to analyze communication data to locate Chang, but ultimately they could not prevent him from deciding to make his way to a creek bed where he placed himself in greater danger of succumbing to hypothermia.

The high court indicated that Chang was cognizant that he was under-equipped for an expedition to the rugged mountains, having prepared only one day of food and supplies and chosen not to remain in place to await rescue.

Rescuers responded within the 72-hour time span deemed critical to finding lost survivors, it added.

Balance restored?

The high court’s ruling has been interpreted as increasing the precision of the line of responsibility between citizens requiring emergency rescue and rescue personnel. The ruling stated that while rescuers had a duty to perform emergency rescues, the objectives of such missions are to minimize injury, but do not go as far as preventing bodily risk and harm.

Chang set out alone on Feb. 27, 2011, on a hike of the Baigu Mountains in the rugged Xueshan region, and went missing the next day. Search teams consisting of local police and firefighters along with the army failed to locate Chang despite a search that ran for 51 days.

Chang’s parents subsequently hired a private mountain guide who located the hiker’s body in a gully after searching for two days. Chang’s parents blamed officials for not finding their son earlier, which might have prevented his death.

The ruling, which can be appealed, was received with relief by rescue personnel who participated in the search. Taiwan’s Government-run Central News Agency reported that Nantou County Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Chen Hsing-chieh (陳興傑) said that the first ruling was a blow to the morale of search and rescue teams.

He thanked the high court for its decision and reminded hikers to be cognizant of local ordinances on safety before embarking on mountain treks.

Chang’s parents have not decided whether to appeal, adding that their initial motivation was not to blame rescue personnel but to bring attention to the “slow command response.”

“We just hope this decision won’t get in the way of reevaluating current rescue procedures,” said father Chang Chun-ching.

In 2015, The News Lens reported on the efforts of Chang’s parents to raise awareness of mountain climbing safety following the death of their son. Chang’s mother, Tu Li-fang, has promoted related issues including education efforts, climber’s insurance, simplified procedures to call for helicopter searches and imports of personal location beacons.

An unabridged Chinese-language version can be found here.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston