Hold Corporations Accountable for Killing People


This just came across the transom:

In late July the British government agreed to introduce a new law called the "Corporate Manslaughter Statute," which will make companies criminally responsible for deaths caused by a firm's gross negligence.

Penalties for violating the act potentially include unlimited fines, a "publicity order" (requiring the company to publicize its crime) and even remedial steps to correct the source of the lawbreaking activity.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a law like that in the U.S. to protect workers and consumers. How many examples can you think of where serious injuries or death might have been prevented? I can think of a few, like the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Houston, the Ford-Firestone tire fiasco, the McWane pipe company deaths (covered an excellent NYTimes series by David Barstow and Lowell Bergman), and the 5,000 other "deaths on the job" that the AFL estimates result from the flouting of work safety regulations .

With a law like that, prosecutors might also be able to go after companies that regularly violate mine safety regulations and then claim an "act of nature" was responsible for their workers' deaths.

The UK is not the only country out ahead of US on this issue. To our shame, so are our neighbors to the north. A major mining accident in Westray, Ontario in 1992, led (after much organizing by the families of the victims -- with the help of the United Steelworkers) to support for and passage of Canada's new "Westray law" -- a law that similarly penalizes corporate crimes that contribute to serious injury or death.

Here in the U.S., it's very difficult to hold either corporations or corporate executives responsible for cases of gross negligence. Can you name any corporate executives who are likely to do as much time as Bernie Ebbers for causing an estimated 100,000 people to needlessly suffer heart attacks after taking Merck's Vioxx?

We all know that the fines that corporations receive for regulatory violations are routinely treat as the "cost of doing business," yet few of us are probably aware that the Supreme Court has been continuously cutting back on the availability of punitive damages (a legal sanction they don't have at all in the UK) under state and federal laws.

The corporate criminals are getting away with murder. At a minimum, Congress should provide Americans with the same legal protections that citizens in other countries receive.

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