It’s Time to Hold Major Corporate Executives Personally Accountable for Criminal Behavior

General Motors (GM) withheld information on defective ignition switches, Takata knowingly produced defective airbags, Toyota concealed information regarding unexpected vehicle acceleration, and Volkswagen (VW) deliberately violated clean air laws by undermining their vehicle pollution emission controls.  

These auto company cover-ups have had serious public health and safety consequences; GM’s faulty ignitions have been linked to at least 124 deaths and 266 injuries, Takata’s faulty air bags have been linked to six deaths in the U.S. and more than 100 injuries worldwide, and Toyota faces nearly 400 wrongful death and personal-injury lawsuits. However, none of these cases has resulted in a single corporate executive being criminally charged with violating the law.

Though a significant financial penalty, Toyota’s $1.2 billion fine represents less than seven percent of Toyota’s fiscal year 2014 net profit. GM has agreed to pay a $900 million fine, or less than one-quarter of its FY2014 net income, for withholding information from federal regulators on the defective ignition switches more than a decade.  In both the GM and Toyota cases, the U.S. Justice Department filed “deferred prosecution agreements” in which no criminal charges will be filed if GM and Toyota adhere to their negotiated terms. As the mother of one of the GM ignition victims noted "If a person kills someone because he decided to drive drunk, he will go to jail," she said. "Yet the GM employees who caused 124 deaths are able to hide behind a corporation because our laws are insufficient."

Unfortunately, the GM and Toyota cases highlight the clout of large corporations to hold their executives personally harmless for their actions. Compare that with the well-deserved 28-year jail sentence that the head of the Peanut Corporation of America recently received for deliberately selling salmonella-contaminated product that killed nine people and sickened hundreds of others.

Given the rash of automobile company malfeasance, a key question emerges - who is being held responsible for this conduct?

To address the need to hold corporation executives personally responsible for their misbehavior,  Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Bob Casey (D-PA) today introduced the Hide No Harm bill which would hold corporate executives criminally responsible for not disclosing serious dangers in their products and production process to relevant government agencies, their workers and the public. The federal government’s recent history of allowing executives of major corporations to escape responsibility for their criminal actions underscores the importance and necessity of this legislation. Members of Congress from both parties should strongly support this legislation – the public and workers deserve no less from their government.  

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