legal question about "corporate manslaughter"

I was reading today something about the Piper Alpha oil platform tragedy. Evidently as a result of the deficiencies identified in the investigative report, there is/was a movement in England to institute a charge of “corporate manslughter”. I have two questions:

The page I linked to is pretty old, do any of the BritDopers know if this is moving forward?

I don’t think that there is any equivalent in U.S. law, is there? Can a corporation be considered a defendant in a manslaughter prosecution? IIRC from the Bhopal disaster Union Carbide only faced civil actions, not criminal ones. But I could easily be wrong, could a corporation face criminal manslaughter charges for a disaster?

Yes. In the U.S. a corporation is typically criminally liable for the criminal actions of its employees performed within the scope of their employment. Indeed, corporations can sometimes be liable even when no single employee committed any crime as long as all the elements of the crime were satisfied by various employees. However, just because a corporation is liable for a crime, that doesn’t typically mean its officers or directors are guilty. Since you cannot put a corporation in jail, the ultimate punishment is typically a fine – often a real big one, but in kind if not degree not all that different from the outcome of civil actions.


Re Union Carbide, India is pursuing criminal charges against its former chairman and is seeking his extradition.

Cliffy, don’t forget that there are statutes making certain violations by U.S. corporations punishable by jail for the responsible officers. I’m thinking of certain safety violations, as well as some drug safety laws.

Cliffy, I was hoping you’d wander by. Your statement that:

This was the basis for the prosecution of Arthur Andersen, yes?

I was thinking that the only possible sentence for a corporate criminal defendant would be a fine. But I was also thinking that there are “secondary” effects from a criminal conviction that a prosecutor might want to obtain. Again using AA as an example, their conviction barred AA from government contracts, certifying company financials to the SEC, etc., which killed the company. I had that sort of thing in mind.

Otto good point about Union Carbide. I was aware of India’s prosecution, but I was seeking answers in US law. Thanks.

In a perfect world, this would have been the basis for the Andersen prosecution, yes, but the jury misunderstood the law and convicted the partnership on the basis of the actions of a single individual which were legal. Although I think they were trying, IMO Andersen doesn’t have much chance on appeal because, even though the jury appears to have convicted the partnership on an incorrect legal theory, the prosecution, by showing that one dude knew that documents shouldn’t be destroyed and another dude destroyed documents, introduced evidence sufficient to support a conviction. If a jury can reasonably come to the conclusion it reached on the basis of the evidence, then the court will not investigate whether it actually came to that conclusion reasonably or unreasonably.

You mention the secondary effects of a corporate criminal sentence – you’re quite right about that. Andersen is one very well-known example. It’s also a big issue in healthcare settings because the Medicare regs are so complex it’s easy to be guilty of a technical violation but many of the companies that handle Medicare billing have no other source of income, so if they lose their right to contract with the government, they fold.

As to Nametag’s point – indeed, some statutes do impose liability upon officers, but note that in these cases the officer himself has a personal duty to, say, ensure safety in which he has criminally failed. OTOH, consider this: a bank must notify the federal government if anyone sends more than $10,000 out of the country. (It’s meant to fight money laundering.) For the purposes of this law, multiple transactions which net over 10 grand count as a single reportable transaction. It is a felony for the bank to fail to report. Now, imagine that a crafty drug dealer is sending his payments to his Columbian supplier. Knowing about the reporting requirement, he makes two funds transfers of $4000 so as not to meet the threshhold. (BTW. structuring transactions in this fashion is a felony too.)

He makes these transactions with two separate tellers. Now, there is teller A who knows about 4 grand, teller B who knows about 4 grand, and bank officer C who is aware of this law. If the bank doesn’t make its report, it may be held liable – after all, through its employees the bank knew everything it needed to know about the transaction but failed to do so. None of the employees broke the law, however, because none of them personally failed to report a 10 grand transaction which they individually knew about. This is what I alluded to earlier when I said that just because a corporation is criminally guilty, it doesn’t necessarily follow that any given individual officer, director, or employee is guilty of any crime. Maybe yes, maybe no, depending on the facts and the duties the law has imposed on each individual, but this is a analytically separate inquiry from the corporation’s guilt.