IN MASSACHUSETTS there is a judge with a really novel idea. He believes that if someone steals a car and wrecks it, he should have to pay for it. This is very controversial, because what it means is that the criminal not only owes a debt to society, but also to the person he harmed. I know this takes your breath away.
Nevertheless, the idea is a radical one and it may not even be a practical one. Some criminals, after all, have no money, can't find jobs and wouldn't do an honest day's work if their life depended on it -- which it often does. Still, the idea is kind of basic. It is called being responsible for what you do. As basic as it is, it has yet to be applied in a criminal sense to the corporate world.
At the moment, corporations are somewhere out there -- a place where you cannot touch them. They exist as some sort of fiction out of a fairy tale -- a wonderful device for raising capital and insuring limited liability, but a nightmare when it comes to holding someone -- a person -- responsible for a decision.
A case in point is the situation at Love Canal, N.Y., a suburb of Niagara Falls. There, the Hooker Chemical Co., a subsidiary of the giant Occidental Petroleum, dumped tons of chemical wastes, some of which have percolated to the service, fouling the area, burning children, possibly causing disease, and sending real-estate values plummeting to zip. For all this, Hooker says it is blameless.
Maybe yes and maybe no. The government just sued the company and will, give or take a decade or two, find out. It would be nice, in Watergate fashion, to get the Hooker executives on the stand and ask what did they know and when did they know it, and get some answers to some questions.
But at the moment, only the corporation is liable -- not people. You cannot send a corporation to jail. You cannot even shame it. It exists, accountable to no one except the stockholders, as if it were on automatic pilot. It is a nice legal concept, clean and wonderful, and it has enabled America to flourish industrially. But it means also that you have to pretend that no one is responsible for what happens -- no real person.
You have to pretend, for instance, that no one designed and marketed the Pinto and its improperly located gas tank. Something like 500 poeple have died as a result, and it has been charged that they died because Ford Motor Co. decided that it was cheaper to produce a bad car than a good one. I, for one, would like to meet the person responsible.
I would also like to meet the guy who thought it was a wonderful idea to dump the chemical Kepone into the James River in Virginia, contaminating both the water and the soil, not to mention people, and aks him if what he did is any different, really, then mugging a man as he walked down the street.
I have the same question for the people who decide to export products that have been banned in this country for health and safety reasons. I would like to ask them if they think they should be held criminally liable for what happens to people who use their product. If a child comes down with cancer because his pajamas contain Tris, is anyone -- an honest to God person -- responsible? Now they're not.
At the moment, a bill has been introduced in Congress that would hold corporate managers criminally liable for failing to inform the government of "a serious danger associated with the product." Then the government, which does not have a financial stake in the decision, could decide whether the product should be marketed.
Like the idea of the Massachusetts judge, this sounds basic, but it is really radical.For the first time, it would hold corporate executives personally and criminally responsible for their decisions. You decide to go ahead with a product that could hurt people and keep your mouth shut about the dangers and you can go to jail. How sweet it would be.
There are problems with this approach. It is awfully hard most of the time to find out who is really making decisions and how much was known at the time the decisions were made. These are real obstacles, and they might even prove to be formidable. You can understand that.
But not too long ago, I met a woman named Lois Gibbs. She is the head of the Love Canal Homeowners Association and she talked of the people in her neighborhood who were sick, and the ones who had lost all their money in their homes, and of her boy, a kid the same age as mine. She said he was sick from the poison in the ground. Right or wrong, she blamed Hooker Chemical.
I thought she was wrong. I blamed a man, and I would very much like to see him on the stand, look Lois Gibbs' son in the eye, and account for what he has done. If he had mugged the kid, he would go to jail. If he has poisoned him, the punishment should be no different. It's about time the scales were balanced.
Let the seller beware.