General Motors (GM) has recalled millions of vehicles equipped with faulty ignition switches that may shut the engine off during driving, which in turn may prevent the airbags from inflating in the event of a collision. GM itself has linked 31 crashes and 13 deaths to the malfunction.
Multiple ongoing investigations, including a federal criminal probe, are asking whether the company intentionally concealed the problem and, if so, how long executives knew about it. GM acknowledges that engineers proposed a fix in 2004 and 2005, but the company says upper management only became aware of the problem last year.
Now, some victims and their families want prosecutors to go after the individuals at the company responsible for the delays and alleged coverups. The Associated Press quoted Leo Ruddy, whose daughter died in a recalled Chevrolet Cobalt, saying that prison sentences are the only way to protect the public from corporate negligence.
But it is far more common for corporations as a whole, not individual decision-makers, to be held responsible for wrongdoings. In March, the Justice Department closed a years-long investigation into problems of unintended acceleration in some Toyota cars without filing charges against any individuals at the company. Instead, the company agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle allegations of improper handling of the problem, which was linked to scores of deaths.
Sending an individual to prison requires proving his or her personal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Resolving a charge against a company usually involves an agreement to settle, a much easier task.
Individual prosecutions would probably strike fear in the hearts of corporate executives who might be tempted to cover up product defects. But regardless of the outcome of the GM case, victims and their families can seek compensation for their losses by filing suit against the company.