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Time for a Corporate Death Penalty Act

by KARYN STRICKLER

George W. Bush recently announced that he was going to end asbestos damage lawsuits; limit medical malpractice suits; and ban class action lawsuits of all sorts. It’s part of his high priority, tort reform plan.

Instead of Bush’s proposed tort reform — depriving ordinary folk of reasonable settlements in cases of severe harm and making the rule of law meaningless — Timothy G. Hermach, President of the Native Forest Council, proposes a Corporate Death Penalty Act.

Regardless of your position on the death penalty, when an individual murders someone, they know that they may face the death penalty. While it is badly administered, the death penalty is supposed to be a deterrent.

Juan Alverez, the man who recently abandoned his car on the train tracks in Glendale, California, injuring hundreds and causing the death of 11 people in a train derailment there, has been charged with murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, which can only be used in exceptional circumstances in California, because Mr. Alverez knew, or should have known that his actions could be lethal.

Corporate leaders kill people regularly, often consciously, with personal impunity. Why not hold the individuals behind corporations that poison, harm and kill people accountable the same way we do for individuals who commit murder, deliberately or otherwise?

The idea seems kind of whacky, until you consider the fact that, in a capitalist society, making money reigns supreme, even if doing so kills someone – or thousands of people – as in the case of Dow Chemical’s Union Carbide plant in Bhopal.

Russell Mokiber and Robert Weissman of the Multinational Monitor named Dow Chemical among it’s top 10 worst corporations of 2004 because, as they say:

The world’s largest plastic maker, Dow purchased Union Carbide in 1999. At midnight on December 2, 1984, 27 tons of lethal gases leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, immediately killing an estimated 8,000 people and poisoning thousands of others.

Today [Dow Chemical owns Union Carbide and] in Bhopal, at least 150,000 people, including children born to parents who survived the disaster, are suffering from exposure-related health effects such as cancer, neurological damage, chaotic menstrual cycles and mental illness. Dow refuses to take any responsibility.

Should not Dow’s denial of corporate responsibility be put to the test of a criminal trial? If convicted, shouldn’t those responsible pay the ultimate price for such a horrific crime?

Also making the top 10 Multinational Monitor list for 2004 is the drug company Merck which makes the infamous drug Vioxx, generically known as rofecoxib.

The Associated Press reports that Dr. David Graham, a Food and Drug Administration drug safety official wrote in an article published in the British medical journal, the Lancet, “An estimated 88,000 -140,000 excess cases of serious coronary heart disease probably occurred in the U.S.A. over the market life of rofecoxib.”

Dr. Graham also concluded, ‘the U.S. national estimate of the case-fatality rate (fatal acute myocardial infarction plus sudden cardiac death) was 44 per cent, which suggests that many of the excess cases attributable to rofecoxib use were fatal.”

That’s between 38,720 — 61,600 people who likely died from taking Vioxx.

Merck says it pulled the drug as soon as it saw conclusive evidence of the drug’s dangers, but Dr. Graham says that Merck knew of the adverse effect of the drug four years before they took it off the market.

If Vioxx was on the market four years after its ill effects were known, profit was the likely motive. The Times of London reports that, “Vioxx was one of the most heavily-promoted drugs for patients with arthritis, bringing in sales worth $2.5 billion a year.”

A Corporate Death Penalty Act, properly enforced, might deter tobacco companies, for example, from making profits by soliciting five thousand young people age 12-17, to try cigarettes for the first time each day. Within days or weeks of the first cigarette, symptoms of nicotine addiction appear, according to the American Legacy Foundation.

Tobacco Free Kids says:

The 1998 legal settlement between the states and the tobacco companies prohibited the tobacco companies from taking “any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth… in the advertising, promotion or marketing of tobacco products.” [Nevertheless]…tobacco companies have increased their marketing expenditures by more than 84 percent to a record…$34.8 million a day, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Much of this marketing is still targeted at kids.

One of the tobacco industry’s most outrageous new tactics is the introduction of candy-flavored cigarettes! (View advertising examples): R.J. Reynolds has launched a series of flavored cigarettes, including a pineapple and coconut-flavored cigarette called “Kauai Kolada” and a citrus-flavored cigarette called ‘twista Lime”.

Deliberately hooking children on their poisonous product is the only way for executives, Board members and shareholders to continue to make profits. Twelve hundred people die every day — that’s 438,000 annually — as a result of tobacco use or being exposed to second-hand smoke. Tobacco Free Kids reports that “More than 5 million children alive today will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses.”

What’s really whacky is that our society allows this to continue. It is breathtaking in its consequence. It’s immoral, corrupt, depraved — and it’s perfectly legal. Corporate killers rarely see the inside of a jail cell, let alone face real consequences for their deplorable behavior.

In business school, Tim Hermach was taught that his mandatory, prime directive as a manager was to maximize shareholder values, regardless of consequences — that there were no moral or other deterrents.

Mr. Hermach raised his hand and, in an attempt to expose the absurdity of the theory said, “You”re telling me that we must kill the goose and take two gold eggs today rather than take care of the goose and allow it to give us one gold egg daily, for the rest of its life. Under your corporate accounting and profit theory, I should kill you and sell your organs for $100,000 on the open market, because you”re worth a lot more dead than alive, when figured in today’s dollars.”

That’s obviously not legal, but it is certainly the principle upon which extractive industry operates. Corporations rip out the forests which are the lungs of the earth, providing us with topsoil to grow our food, air to breathe and water to drink. They destroy the wetlands which are the kidneys of the earth, providing flood control and keeping our water clean — all in the name of the more money.

Extractive industry believes the earth and its ecosystems are more valuable when sold in pieces, instead of being left in the intricate tapestry that sustains life.

In his history of Shell Oil Company, Riding the Dragon: Royal Dutch Shell & the Fossil Fire, Jack Doyle documents hundreds of cases of human rights violations, pollution, injury and death caused by the company and its leaders (See: www.shellfacts.com ).

In May, 1994, Doyle says Shell agreed to pay a fine of $3 million to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for federal safety violations and to pay multi-million dollar wrongful death settlements to the families of dead workers killed from a fire at their Belpre, Ohio plant.

The fire spread to a “nearby chemical storage tank area, touching off an explosion and ferocious chemical fire, causing four of the big tanks to burn and lose millions of gallons of chemicals. Four workers are killed in the incident and 1,700 people evacuated. The…leakage from the site pollutes the Ohio River with a 22-mile plume of ethylene dibromide, killing fish and forcing downstream municipalities to seek alternative water supplies,” according to a timeline at www.shellfacts.com .

Shell claims to be moving beyond fossil fuel economy, the economy that is driving global warming to the point of no return and jeopardizing life on earth. But the Multinational Monitor reports that, in fact, ‘they continue to secure long-term contracts that tie them to the fossil fuel economy, with all of its geopolitical hazards, all of its human rights abuses and all of its environmental destruction.”

Corporate biographer Jack Doyle, told the Multinational Monitor, “Corporations…are not controlling the full costs of their operation, and we are picking up the tab for their externalities in form of disease, illness, lower immunity, altered reproduction, birth defects, cancer…That’s a mortal trespass, an unforgivable transgression that must be stopped…They need to be prosecuted.”

The Corporate Death Penalty Act could provide that every member of the Board of Directors and executives of a corporation who knew, or should have known about the likelihood of their product or services to cause death, will be subject to the death penalty if their product or service results in the death of an individual or group of individuals.

Tim Hermach thinks that Fox TV would be an appropriate venue for televising corporate executions and says, “No more payoffs, no more get offs. You, corporate executives and Board members are the few. We, the people that you kill, are the many. Those left standing, will hold corporate killers accountable for your lethal actions.”

KARYN STRICKLER is a writer and activist. You can reach her at fiftyplusone@earthlink.net .

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