Corporate Negligence – A Repeated History


Melis O., Op-Ed Editor and Yearbook Liaison

Corporate negligence is actively practiced by many large businesses. The mistreatment of employees and consumers can be considered corporate negligence specifically when the results of actions can be foreseen or prevented. The following examples are examples of corporate negligence, the direct consequences, and examples specific to our community, the United States, and the world.

In order to ensure that we don’t become the boy who cried wolf, we must first define “corporate negligence.” The Cornell Law Institute defines corporate negligence as “A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. The behavior usually consists of actions, but can also consist of omissions when there is some duty to act” Corporate negligence can also be defined in simpler terms as: “a failure to exercise appropriate and/or ethical ruled care expected to be exercised amongst specified circumstances.” Looking at the larger picture, we can define any actions taken by a corporation that have failed to address concerns regarding worker health, especially when those concerns have been presented multiple times, as corporate negligence.

An industrial town in Bhopal, India was centered around a fertilizer plant where, in 1984, upwards of 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas, taking the lives of 15,000 people. This highly toxic substance now occupies the waterways and poorly developed irrigation systems of a city with an already weak infrastructure. However, this tragedy did not come without warning. Although there were numerous safety inspections and warnings from officials, the company in charge of the pesticide plant, Union Carbide India Limited, ignored the signs of an impending disaster. Without the proper safety measures in place to contain and process the toxic chemicals necessary to manufacture pesticides, the use of toxic chemicals in the plant began to look like a ticking time bomb, waiting to burst and cause an imminent tragedy. Union Carbide India Limited continually rejected the development of their equipment and put the safety of their workers on the back burner, while solely focusing on profit and productivity. Such actions constitute being labeled as deliberate corporate negligence.

Corporate negligence doesn’t always have to arise when regarding employer-employee relationships. It is also fair to consider corporate negligence when looking at the relationships between corporations and their consumers/consumer audiences. Looking at a more current example of corporate negligence in our community, let’s shift our gaze to Purdue Pharma’s involvement in the opioid crisis, the scandal that put a cloud over the company’s reputation. For some background, as a direct result of the opioid crisis 760,000 people have lost their lives in the United States since 1999.

From their establishment until their ungracious fall from prestige, it is difficult to make the deduction of when the heads of Purdue Pharma made the morally corrupt decision to enable addiction for profit. For example, Purdue Pharma convinced the doctors and the public to risk the lives of their patients and loved ones. Here is a specific example: “Before the 1990s, many physicians hesitated to prescribe patients opioids for pain because of the risk of developing an addiction. However, as Purdue Pharma and other major pharmaceutical companies developed relationships with leading physicians and researchers, the spread of misinformation began stating that opioids are safe and effective.” While the world was in the midst of an opioid epidemic, a greatly influential source embedded deeply in the structure of society (Purdue Pharma), one which people relied on to stay healthy, was deliberately worsening the situation by using false advertising and mislabeling.

Time and time again we see the trends of companies putting their profit over the lives of the people in the societies and communities directly affected by the actions of large corporations. The most abominable result of these actions is the fact that oftentimes the people in charge of the companies rarely get anything more than a slap on the hand. However, it is understandable that the results of disasters may not entirely be in the hands of the CEOs and leaders of corporations; the default should be that anyone with remote involvement be investigated and punished to an adequate degree. Why are we not able to rely on our elected officials to protect employee safety and investigate the overreach of corporations? While that is sadly a large request to ask of our world leaders today, those responsible for harming society through their greed need to face the consequences of their actions. Hopefully through calls to action, those who ought to be punished will be punished, and upsetting events, such as the Bhopal Disaster and Purdue Pharma’s spread of misinformation, will become a distant memory.