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Monday, 21 July 2014 08:22

Senate Bill Would Hold Corporate Executives Criminally Accountable for Not Disclosing Lethal Product Defects

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criminalminds(Photo: bridget_willard)

The Center for Effective Government offers some astonishing examples of corporations that withheld information about products that are dangerous to consumers, resulting in death, injury and illness. For instance, consider a profitable pharmaceutical drug being sold even though its potentially deadly side effects were known to the company: In 2008, it was revealed that, "Merck withheld information on the risks of the painkiller Vioxx from doctors and patients for more than five years, resulting in an estimated 88,000 to 139,000 heart attacks, approximately 30 to 40 percent of which were fatal."

Of course, the more recent examples of deaths that resulted from corporations keeping consumers in the dark about dangerous products were exemplified by GM and other auto industry giants. According to the Center for Effective Government:

[There are] multiple cases of corporate misconduct that [lead] to serious injuries and deaths. A recent example involved General Motors' (GM) recall of millions of automobiles with defective ignition switches. For over a decade, GM withheld information about the defective switches from regulators and the public. The company recently conceded that faulty switches are responsible for at least 13 deaths over the past several years, and some regulators believe the actual death toll may be much higher. GM has moved to settle more than 300 claims related to these deadly ignition switches.

On May 16, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration slapped GM on the wrist with a $35 million civil fine, amounting to less than a day's revenue for the company. Although GM executives were aware of the defects and even asked employees to conceal the safety concerns from the public, not one of them will have to pay a criminal fine or face time in prison.

The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards adds, "Toyota intentionally concealed information from the public about defects in their automobiles that caused them to accelerate even as drivers were trying to slow them down, leading to at least five deaths and resulting in no criminal penalties for individual Toyota executives."

The list of corporations that choose profit over disclosing perilous defective products is extensive, but if they are found out, like Wall Street banks, corporate execs are almost never held criminally accountable. Also, like the treatment of the execs of banks too big to fail, many of the executives responsible for not informing the public of defective products remain running their companies after the businesses are exposed and fined.

Public Citizen notes of this very indulgent attitude toward what is basically corporate and executive responsibility for the deaths and injuries of consumers:

The victims of these acts of corporate violence are not statistical abstractions. They are real people. They are families who have to live without a father, or a child, or a mother. They are the people who have to live lives with severe pain or disfigurement. They are people whose dreams die, whose lives are turned upside down, who suffer unbearable emotional pain.

Yet notwithstanding the horrific toll of death and injury from these accumulated industrial nightmares, the perpetrating corporations and corporate executives too often are able to avoid criminal liability.

That is why on July 16, the Hide No Harm Act was introduced in the Senate. According to a news release issued by the legislation's co-author, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the purpose of the bill is to:

Make it a crime for a corporate officer to knowingly conceal the fact that a corporate action or product poses a danger of death or serious physical injury to consumers and workers. The bill, which would create punishments of up to five years in prison and potential fines, would also create a safe harbor from criminal liability in cases where a corporate officer notifies a federal regulatory agency and individuals subject to the danger.

“‎Recent revelations of morally reprehensible hiding of known harms by GM officials should prompt criminal prosecution, not just public condemnation. Concealment can kill – and corporate officers should be held accountable for it,” Blumenthal said. “This measure would criminally punish corporate officials who conceal that a product is dangerous. Penalties for severely risking consumers’ lives or health should be more than money paid by the corporation, in effect the cost of doing business. This new law also would protect and create a legal safe harbor for whistleblowers who disclose defects and dangers. The goal is to assure that GM’s corporate anti-consumer concealment never happens again.”

“Consumer and worker safety should always come before corporate profits. It is inexcusable when a corporation knowingly exposes consumers or its workers to dangerous safety hazards,” Harkin said. “We must have stronger protections to establish clear safeguards against such negligence. The ‘Hide No Harm Act’ would take immediate action by making it a crime for a corporate officer to knowingly conceal the fact that a corporate action or product could cause serious harm to consumers and workers, while protecting whistleblowers who help to bring to light this type of danger. Passing this bill is a strong step to protect Americans and significantly improve corporate accountability.”

It it is an egregious double standard to hold citizens criminally accountable for causing deaths, while companies are let off the hook. It is also a rather tortured concept of corporate personhood that corporations have the rights of people, according to the US Supreme Court, but not the responsibility for observing a criminal code of conduct in regards to the knowingly negligent deaths of consumers.

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