APRIL 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBER 4
E D I T O R I A L
Corporate Crime and Violence
by Russell Mokhiber
In his book, Agent Orange on Trial, Peter H. Schuck, a professor of law at Yale University, makes the following observation about the Ford Motor Co. and its decision to market the Ford Pinto - a car with a fuel system that allegedly killed and injured hundreds of Pinto passengers: "Here, as in other such cases, nothing more malicious or reckless on the manufacturer's part was shown than a calculated, conventional decision to design a product in a way that traded safety off against cost and other marketing and engineering considerations."
"Nothing more malicious or reckless ... than a.. .conventional decision ... that traded safety off against cost..." The words must ring harshly in the ears of the surviving victims of Agent Orange, the Dalkon Shield, Asbestos, Minamata Disease, Thalidomide, Infant Formula, and Bhopal. In these cases, profiled in this issue, very calculated and very conventional decisions traded safety for cost. Millions of people were injured and thousands were killed.
For Schuck and others, such "conventional" decisions do not entail a degree of malice or recklessness that demands criminal action, nor do most prosecutors consider criminal prosecution. But the carnage wrought by the criminogenic actions of corporations and their executives is immense.
Over the next 30 years, 240,000 people - 8,000 per year, about one every hour - will die from asbestos-related cancer.
Of the 2.8 million U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam, 40,000 may eventually become ill or die from the effects of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals dumped on Vietnam and these soldiers may produce 2,000 children with deformities.
The Dalkon Shield intra-uterine device seriously injured tens of thousands of women.
One million infants worldwide died in 1986 because they were bottle-fed instead of breast-fed.
In 1984, 2,000 to 5,000 people were killed and 200,000 injured, 30,000 to 40,000 of them seriously, after a Union Carbide affiliate's factory in Bhopal, India released a deadly gas over the town.
In Minamata, a small fishing village in Japan, Chisso Corporation, a chemical company, deposited mercury wastes in Minamata Bay that killed and injured thousands.
Thalidomide, marketed primarily in West Germany, England, and Japan as a sedative, created 8,000 severely deformed babies, some born with shortened or no limbs.
Each of these cases have their own set of disturbing facts, but taken together, they raise an issue of fundamental importance: Why are those responsible for such massive devastation not criminally prosecuted? (Only in the case of Minamata was a successful criminal prosecution brought - and 30 years after the ravages of the disease first appeared, that conviction is on appeal.)
These corporations and their executives took actions that put thousands at risk and often had direct and deadly consequences. But for too long a double standard has insulated them from criminal sanctions that surely would be imposed had they committed such acts in a non-corporate context.
Reckless disregard of the risks posed by multinational industry demands swift criminal prosecution. In the United States, local and state prosecutors have begun bringing criminal homicide prosecutions against smaller corporations in connection with work and product-related deaths. The obstacles confronting prosecutors contemplating criminal charges against large corporations and multinationals, however, are formidable. Few are in a position to take the political risks involved in bringing such prosecutions. In one notable case, a Republican prosecutor in Indiana decided in 1980 to bring reckless homicide charges against the Ford Motor Company in connection with the fiery deaths of three teenage girls who died when their Ford Pinto exploded after it was hit from behind. Ford, one of the world's largest multinationals, brought significant resources to bear against the local prosecutor, who relied on law students for research. Ford outmaneuvered the prosecution to gain a not guilty verdict. (The next issue of the Monitor will take a careful look at the developing trend of criminal prosecutions of corporations in the United States.)
Traditionally, criminal homicide laws have been the jurisdiction of the states. But corporate crime and violence transcend state borders. The Dalkon Shield, manufactured by the Virginia-based A.H. Robins, killed and injured women throughout the United States and around the world. A chemical plant operated by an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide released 40 tons of toxic gas and caused the deaths of thousands of people in Bhopal, India. Federal and international criminal law must be restructured with an eye toward multinational corporate criminals. The U.S. Congress could begin this process by passing a tough federal homicide and reckless endangerment statute. Only federal resources can counter those available to multinational corporate defendants.
And if it is true, as Professor Schuck lx.lieves, that cases similar to the ones profiled in this issue represent "nothing more malicious or reckless.. .than a conventional decision ...that traded safety off against cost," then perhaps the conventional has become criminal. If that it is the case, then it is time to change the way corporations do business. A good place to begin is by punishing those corporations and their executives who injure and kill others.
Russell Mokhiber, the author of the seven profiles on corporate crime and violence featured in this issue, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. His book on corporate crime and violence will be published by Sierra Club Books in early 1988.