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Tragedy at Russian Hospital Shows Need for Civil Justice System

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By: Daniel M. Kotin

At 2:00 a.m. on April 26, 2013 fire broke out at a Russian psychiatric hospital in a village 70 miles north of Moscow.  An alarm sounded, but there was no fire extinguisher, hose, nor fire hydrant on or near the property.  A fire station was located on the other side of a canal, but the ferry needed to cross the canal was not operating.  It took firefighters one hour to reach the burning building.  By that time, 38 of 39 patients had died, most of them burned alive.

Tragedies like this one are common in Russia.  The president of the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia recalls 15 similar fires at institutions in the past year.  The death rate for fires in Russia is eight times greater than that in the United States.

The reason for so many deaths is not because Russia lacks the intelligence or financial ability to protect its citizens.  Rather, the problem is due to the absence of a functioning civil justice system which would hold wrong-doers responsible to their victims and create incentive in Russian society to improve safety for citizens.

As Latimer Lukin, Russia’s Human Right’s Commissioner stated, his nation is suffering from a civic disease in that people feel “indifference to all human problems but their own.”

Under an American Civil Justice System, many people and institutions would be held accountable for the 38 tragic deaths last week.  Potentially liable defendants would include the ill-prepared operators of the hospital, the long-delayed fire department, the ferry operator who was not available, and likely many others.

Under an American civil justice system, nothing could be done to bring back the 38 lives that were lost, but in all likelihood, the civil justice process that followed would lead to accountability , acceptance of responsibility, and, most importantly, safety changes to help ensure that similar horrors never happen again.

Sadly, there is no such system in Russia.

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