Last February Japanese prosecutors charged three former executives responsible for the Fukishima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station with criminal negligence related to the reactor meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The men are accused of failing to take measures that would have protected the plant from damage. This action raises an interesting question about who bears responsibility for failing to protect the public.
Contrast the Japanese action with the criminal charges stemming from last year’s Santa Barbara oil spill. In March prosecutors indicted Plains All American Pipeline and a single employee on multiple charges related to the oil spill. Four of the charges leveled at the company are felonies for spilling oil into state waters. The remainder, including those against the employee, are misdemeanors related to failure to report the spill in a timely manner. The company could face fines up to $2.8 million if convicted of all counts. The employee is looking at up to three years in prison.
Our tendency in the United States is to treat disaster events as civil rather than criminal actions. Companies are sued in civil court and must pay damages. It is rare that companies are charged criminally and even more unusual to see charges brought against individuals. This is changing somewhat as evidenced by the charges brought against one city and two state employees in the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the current Federal criminal investigation related to the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado.
But cases like Flint and the Gold King Mine involve public agencies not corporations. In the US corporations are treated as individuals in terms of liability. The responsibility is fixed on the corporation as a whole rather than on the officers who made the decisions that may have precipitated a crisis. In the case of the Deep Water Horizon spill, only four individuals were criminally charged. Two of those cases were misdemeanors related to obstructing the investigation. Only two low level employees faced manslaughter charges directly related to the blow out. They eventually pled guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges. BP plead guilty to manslaughter charges and paid $4 billion in fines and penalties.
The corporate system exists precisely to shield individuals from personal liability in order to protect their personal assets in a civil suit. But should these protections be extended to absolve them from criminal responsibility? Is a fine that is ultimately paid by the customers and shareholders sufficient to redress criminal negligence? Maybe it’s time we started to rethink this issue.