Senate Bill Would Hold Corporate Executives Personally Liable for Concealing or Failing to Disclose Product Dangers

In an attempt to deter corporate concealment about product safety and dangerous defects, three U. S. Senators recently introduced federal legislation that would hold corporate executives personally liable, both criminally and financially, for failing to timely disclose product safety defects.

Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Robert Casey (D-PA) introduced the “Hide No Harm Act”, S. 2615, on July 16th that would punish corporate executives with up to five years in prison and financial penalties for concealing safety defects. The legislation was prompted in part by GM’s 10-year delay in recalling millions of vehicles with ignition switch defects that GM has since admitted have caused at least 13 deaths and 31 accidents, although safety advocates believe the trail of death and destruction extends much further than what GM has admitted.

The proposed bill would require corporate executives to timely disclose safety information and dangers about their products to regulators, to consumers, and to their own employees. The bill also has a “whistleblower” provision to protect employees against retribution for reporting product dangers or safety concerns.

Although we would like to believe that corporations always have their customers’ best interest and safety at heart, history is full of stories of corporations choosing profits over people, and GM is not the only corporation guilty of hiding or delaying critical safety information to consumers and regulators in order to make a buck. Although the 10-year delay over the ignition switch recall cost GM $35 million, that fine is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money GM makes on a daily basis, and will not deter this type of behavior in the future.

Merck paid a $950 million fine in 2011 and almost $5 billion to settle lawsuits, but the pharmaceutical giant delayed taking its hugely-profitable painkiller Vioxx off the market for four years because of the billions it was making off Vioxx each year, even after clinical trials revealed it significantly increased the risk of heart attack and stroke. What’s worse, the company exposed even more people to the risks of heart attack and stroke when it began actively marketing the drug as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, an off-label use never approved by the FDA, in order to pump up the bottom line.

And although Toyota ultimately paid a $1.2 billion fine because of its prior knowledge of unintended acceleration problems, it adamantly denied problems for years thereby exposing more consumers to deadly defects.

The Supreme Court has afforded corporations the rights of people under our Constitution, but not the corresponding responsibilities. Corporations are legally deemed to be “people” for purposes of contributing money to political campaigns, and to hold religious beliefs in order to deny its employees’ certain benefits provided under federal healthcare legislation, but these same corporations and their executives escape any criminal responsible for negligent or intentional acts that harm or kill people.

The only way to change bad corporate behavior is for corporate executives to be held personally accountable for the decisions they make. Billions of dollars in corporate fines pale in comparison to the huge profits to be made, and human lives will continue to be seen as merely a cost of doing business. Fines won’t deter negligent and criminal corporate behavior until corporate executives have some skin in the game. Only when corporate executives are held personally liable will corporate behavior change in favor of the consumer, and in favor of product safety.

“Corporate concealment can kill, and corporate officers who engage in concealment must be held accountable,” Blumenthal explained. We congratulate these Senators for finally taking a stand for consumers and against corporate greed and hope other Senators will get on board.

If you believe corporate executives should be held personally responsible when they conceal or fail to disclose safety defects, let your voice be heard! Call, write or email your federal representatives and let them know that you want them to support this bill. Contact information for Senators can be found at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm and although this bill is not yet before the House, you can locate your Congressman or Congresswoman at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/.