Assume that a corporation decides to dump tons of hazardous materials from their waste products into the local waterway. The dumping violates all laws and administrative agency standards and is done negligently. Eventually, after a series of unexplained deaths and lingering illnesses in the local community, the company's actions are discovered.
- Who is liable?
- Is it the workers who secretly dumped the hazardous waste into the river?
- Is it the supervisors and managers of the employees who did the dumping?
- Or should liability be imposed on the corporate officers or even the president of the company?
This is a very vague legal question, as the fact of a law prohibiting certain actions does not in and of itself provide sufficient detail to render a judgment in the scenario provided. When it comes to the wording, as opposed to the spirit, of the law, the devil, as they say, is in the details. That said, liability in a civil suit, as well as in a criminal proceeding, would certainly lie with the corporation and its top officers, as well as with supervisors who gave the orders for the dumping of toxic waste into public waterways. Depending upon the precise wording of the law – and teams of lawyers and legislators spend considerable time on these details – the responsible parties may or may not include the employees who actually turned on the spigot releasing the hazardous waste into the surrounding environment. The civil suits filed against the corporation, however, could easily result in penalties – assuming a finding of liability (as opposed to a finding of culpability in a criminal proceeding) – intended to bankrupt the offending corporation, as well as the responsible individuals. Corporations are inanimate objects, of course, but they represent wealth and assets that can be seized or taxed. As such the institution or business can be held liable, as well as the individual officers. In short, if the laws were broken, intentionally or not, the corporate officers, including presidents and chief operating officers, can and would be held liable. Depending upon the findings of an investigation and any evidence indicating lower-level employees are also responsible for the violation of the law, for example, emails or memos indicating willful participation on the part of managers or supervisors (e.g., evidence indicating a supervisor knew that unlawful activity was being contemplated even if he or she was not the decision-making authority) such evidence would likely result in prosecution of these individuals. Prosecutorial discretion could be used to shield these lower-level officials, especially if the indicted or suspected individuals agree to testify against their superiors, but that is different from a finding of liability. Knowingly or unknowingly breaking the law – and the law does often allow for distinctions based upon intent – leaves one vulnerable to prosecution in a criminal case or to penalization in a civil proceeding. It is, as noted, left up to the prosecutor to decide who in the chain of command will be a target.
With respect to lower-level workers, assuming a case is established indicating that the violations of law were carried out at the direction of higher-level officials, it is less likely that a prosecutor would decide to indict and try such employees. While the old “I was just following orders” argument was discredited years ago under far more grave circumstances, the resources and time devoted to pursuing a case like that in the scenario provided would probably not be available. Trials are expensive, and prosecutors may not want to be seen as persecuting the employees for the actions of their superiors while expending millions of dollars in a protracted series of court proceedings. Similarly, civil suits targeting low-income employees would be punitive without accomplishing anything of moral substance. If the corporation and its officers can be found liable and penalized severely, going after their subordinates would constitute minimal added value.
Without knowing all of the facts in this case, it is hard to know for certain, but we can generally predict that the company as a whole will be held liable for the actions of the employees who engaged in the illegal dumping. This is due to the doctrine of vicarious liability.
Under the doctrine of vicarious liability, an employer is generally responsible for the things that employees do while performing their duties. So long as the employee is engaged in actions that can be seen as part of their normal duties, the employer is liable for their actions. This is true whether or not the employer knows what the employee is doing. For example, if a restaurant requires its delivery drivers to get food to customers within 30 minutes of their order, the restaurant can be held liable if a driver hits a pedestrian while hurrying to beat the 30-minute deadline. The restaurant is liable even if it did not actually know that the driver was driving recklessly. The restaurant is liable because the driver was doing his or her job and because the restaurant created the climate in which the driver felt the need to hurry.
By this reasoning, the company should be liable for the dumping that the employees did. Presumably, getting rid of the waste was part of the employees’ job. Because the employees committed these wrongful acts while carrying out their jobs, the employer is liable for what they did.
From the wording of your question, it seems that the employees were actually ordered to dispose of the waste illegally. The question says that “a corporation decides” to do the illegal dumping. This implies that the employees were not simply acting on their own when they dumped the hazardous waste. If this is so, the company will certainly be liable because it directly ordered the illegal dumping. Under the doctrine of vicarious liability, the company would probably be liable even if it had not ordered the dumping. If it actually ordered the dumping, though, there would be no doubt of its liability.
We should note that the employees who did the dumping and their immediate superiors could also be sued by the victims of the waste. The fact that the company will be found liable does not mean that the employees are exempt from being sued. It is likely that they knowingly broke the law or knowingly ordered others to break the law. This means that they too could be liable.
We can say, then, that the company will certainly be liable for the illegal dumping and its effects. Any individual within the company who knowingly or negligently broke the law or ordered others to break the law can also be found liable.