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Legal Precendent for Charging US Corporations with Murder

Corporations are funny creatures invented some time ago to facilitate the expansion of trade. At the time, the United States Government (and I assume other governments) had fears about the abuse of power that an unconscionable pseudo-person under the law might bring down onto society.

The PhD who argued with the MBA Student

In the September/October 1977 issue of Mother Jones Magazine a journalist named Mark Dowie penned an inflamatory article titled Pinto Madness. Dowie’s article gained a lot of traction because it accused Ford of costing the loss of life in a deliberately dangerous sub-compact car to the extent that it was cheaper to pay the victims than to modify the vehicle. Dowie’s feature article on the Ford Pinto was an excellent example of crappy journalism because he manipulated the evidence to fit his story. He fudged, smudged and plain misrepresented to prove his case.

Myth of the Ford Pinto Case is from Rutger’s Law Review, 1991 volume 43:1013. You can download the Myth of the Ford Pinto Case from PointofLaw (link on the right side of their page) to read the extent of Dowie’s wrongdoing. You can also read Grimshaw v Ford Motor Company (1981).

So that drew a path to conflict with the PhD lecturing a Management Ethics course I took last year. He, like many business PhDs, had long used the Pinto case as an extreme example of unethical behaviour. My hole was dug all the deeper when I mentioned the capacity for the Corporation, or the Management Team, to be charged with murder if the Pinto case were factual. He immediately emailed a categorical rebuffing of that idea saying that a United States corporation could not be held responsible for criminal charges in the 1970s and dismissed my argument out of hand. He said that idea of corporate accountability was a very modern concept.

So I put forward this tidbit of US legal history – which only proves that having a PhD floppy hat doesn’t mean you are an expert on every aspect of a subject. The following research revealed the precedent.

US Corporations can be Charged with Murder

If you look in the HeinOnLine legal database through the university library website (or if you can get hold of the journal article privately somewhere) there is a Law Journal called International Legal Practitioner… If you select the 1987 edition scroll in the sidepane until you see the article on page 66 (September 1987) titled Criminal Prosecution of Corporations for Defective Products.

Precedent of a prosecution of a corporation for homicide – the killing of a human being caused by another human being – runs back to United States v Van Schaick (1904)… also in 1909 in New York People v Rochester Railway and Light Company, as well as New York Central Railroad v United States. Again People v Ebasco Services Inc in New York, 1974. It was on the basis of these precedents that Ford was prosecuted in 1978 for 3 counts of homicide in the Pinto case.

This article goes on to state that at the time Ford Motor Company was indicted in Indiana in 1978 for reckless homicide there was “substantial precedent” for holding the corporation liable under the criminal laws.

They could have also pursued the Management Team

On page 67 it follows: Of substantial interest is why corporate executives were not prosecuted in the Pinto case. Brent Fisse has stated: “The reason given by the prosecutor (for not indicting executives) being that he simply did not have the resources to chase after any individual offenders” (footnote 27).

Frances Cullen suggests other reasons for only going after the corporation: “Because of the novelty of the case, the power of Ford, and the difficulty of piercing the corporate veil, Cossentino [the prosecutor] did not seriously consider prosecuting individual Ford executives”.

Two Lessons can be Learned from the Research

The first lesson is that a PhD isn’t an infallible key to knowing everything about everything. The closer you get to that level of academia you become aware how much they know about a certain subject and how little they might know about some others… for example, most business PhDs that I know seem to be animated global warming denialists.

The second lesson is that you can’t create corporations and hide behind their special status of being a vapour-ware person. Management teams that take their ships to the brink, who destroy lives and ruin the Commons can be held accountable. This includes being held accountable for criminal charges like murder. Often the only thing that saves their sorry backsides is a lack of political will.

Journalists should read the Dowie article and the ensuing Rutger’s Law Review article simply because its the best example I know of bad journalism in this context. And it is a strong example of the reason you should extend research beyond what other people feed you.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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