The Age of Greed: Keeping the Public in the Dark About Dangerous Products

Rena Steinzor

April 16, 2014

It’s basic common decency:  If you know people are about to stumble into a dangerous situation without realizing the risk, you should try to warn them before harm occurs.  For example, you might warn someone that a frying pan is hot before they pick it up or that a handrail is broken before they try to descend a staircase.

For too many companies, though, concerns about profit margins and quarterly earnings reports leave little room for common decency.  These days, when a company becomes aware that the activities it undertakes or the products or services it offers put its workers or consumers in harm’s away, it often decides that its economic best interests are best served by keeping the public in the dark.  By turning a blind eye, companies hope to avoid footing the costs necessary for eliminating the harms they are creating.  This strategy also aims to limit their exposure to civil and even criminal liability, administrative fines, and other penalties.

Take the recent example of General Motors and its faulty ignition switches.  The now highly profitable auto manufacturer—$3.8 billion last year alone—determined that the estimated $2.3-million-fix for the problem ($0.90 fix for 2.6 million cars total) was just too costly to undertake.  Instead, GM pulled out all the stops to keep the problem secret for years, including repeatedly lying to its customers, the media, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency charged with overseeing car safety.  All the while, GM’s customers continued to climb into cars that the company knew weren’t safe.  GM admits that 13 people died in crashes caused by the faulty switch.  Based on past experience with these kinds of cases, we can foresee that the actual number is likely to be higher, and GM’s calculations don’t account for people injured in crashes, many seriously.

Other entries on the list of outrageous corporate behavior:   the Peanut Corporation of American knew its peanut paste had tested positive for salmonella, but shipped it out anyway, ultimately killing 9 and sickening 714.   The New England Compounding Center—the compounding pharmacy that sold fungal-contaminated medication leading to the 2012 meningitis outbreak that killed 64 people and sickened at least 751 others in 20 states—knew that it was not taking adequate precautions to ensure that the drugs it produced and packaged were safe.

These companies all perceived strong economic incentives not to warn the public about their harmful activities and products, and they acted accordingly — shamelessly, but responding to those economic concerns.  One would hope that they’d feel a moral incentive that overrode their bottom line, but that failing, we need to change the incentives so that the costs of not warning the public are too big to ignore.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has introduced an important piece of legislation that would make failing to warn the public a lot more costly for companies.  The Dangerous Products Warning Act would make it a crime for companies to not warn their customers or workers within 15 days after they become aware that their activities or the goods or services they sell pose a significant risk of harm or death.  Criminal violations under the bill are punishable by large fines and up to five years in prison; critically, the law is designed to hold accountable those individual corporate officers with the authority to address matters of safety whenever possible.

If enacted, this bill would strongly discourage most companies from taking unreasonable risks with the lives and safety of their customers and workers.  For those scofflaw companies who decide to keep the public in the dark anyway, the bill would provide a critical avenue for obtaining some measure of justice for those who harmed or killed as a result of those companies’ failure to warn.

We don’t live in a perfect world where companies can be expected to do the decent thing.  Instead, laws such as the Dangerous Products Warning Act are essential for safeguarding the public and providing them with some peace of mind. 

Read More by Rena Steinzor
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