As a consumer concerned with product safety, you might assume that it is illegal for corporations to knowingly cover up dangers associated with their goods and services, but you’d be wrong. Following dozens of highly publicized recalls–cars, automobile air bags,pharmaceuticals, and baby toys, to name a few–two senators (one of whom is Bob Casey of Pennsylvania) have proposed legislation they call the “Hide No Harm” bill, which aims to “establish criminal penalties for failing to inform and warn of serious dangers.”
Irvin Jackson, writing for AboutLawsuits.com, claims that the bill has grown out of the recent GM recall of millions of vehicles which has also resulted in at least sixteen deaths: “Following the recall, it has been revealed that General Motors knew for years that vehicles had defective switches, which could cause the car to suddenly turn off if the ignition is jarred or if a heavy key chain was attached to the ignition key, disabling the air bags.”
While the consumers of these products face many dangers, critics have been quick to point out that corporate officials – often those who make risky decisions – have been immune from any criminal blowback. An additional document by Hide No Harm sponsor Senator Richard Blumenthal reads: “When the serious danger inevitably comes to light and civil litigation follows, the corporate officer who knowingly concealed the harm suffers very little, if at all. Meanwhile, the consequences of their actions are felt by the consumers or employees injured or killed because of the danger, by the shareholders financially responsible for the ensuing civil damages, and by the majority of companies within the industry that take seriously their safety responsibilities, but have their reputations tarnished nonetheless.”
As it stands now (and as we at this blog have pointed out time and time again), the civil justice system is often the only thing standing between individuals and the corporations who make products that harm or even kill them. Such cases are usually heard and tried several years after an accident has happened, during which others may occur. For companies like GM and Chrysler, these relatively small and infrequent awards to individuals and their families are not enough of a deterrent to keep them from doing harm.
The Hide No Harm bill proposes that such cover-ups be punishable by fines and a potential five-year jail term for executives who knowingly put their customers at risk. And even better than that, it would also put in place a “safe harbor” for whistleblowers, which would allow “corporate officers” who warn government regulators and overseers of potential dangers. As the president of consumer watchdog group Public Citizen Robert Weissman, put it, “Our regulatory system needs more teeth to ensure that companies take health and safety seriously.”