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How would you punish a corporate executive whose product killed people if the executive had no knowledge that the product was potentially lethal?

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Most harms caused by tortious acts by corporations are punished civilly, but punishment could include incarceration.

Assuming for simplicity's sake that the executive is the only decisionmaker and responsible party, we would want to know whether the executive acted with reasonable care in testing and marketing the product. If all appropriate research, manufacturing processes, marketing claims, and product instructions were observed, and there was therefore no reason for the executive to know the product was dangerous, they would incur little to no punishment. There might be a settlement to avoid litigation, however, even if the executive is not liable.

If the executive were sloppy and exercised unreasonable or unprofessional oversight, and had no knowledge because appropriate measures were not taken or were executed poorly, then the punishment would increase accordingly.

If the executive simply did not care what happened and did not want to know or care to know about how safe their product was, then more punishment would be appropriate.

For criminal penalties to apply, the case must have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the executive had committed an actus reus (prohibited act) with mens rea (prohibited state of mind). This is usually a high bar to meet in cases of corporate negligence, but sometimes there is documentary or other contemporaneous evidence that will prove the necessary elements.

The lethality of the product would also be taken into account in determining punishment, with greater mortality incurring more punishment.

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The punishment that I would advocate would vary greatly depending on the circumstances.

The main thing that I would need to know is whether the executive should have known that the product was potentially lethal.  It is possible that the firm would have developed a product, tested it extensively and responsibly, and yet somehow simply missed a way in which the product could be lethal.  In such a case, it would be hard to punish the executive in any way since that person did everything within reason to determine if the product was safe.  The firm would surely need to compensate victims, but no punishment of the executive (legally speaking) would be warranted. 

This would be different if the executive could have known by making a reasonable effort.  For example, if there were tests that could have been run, but weren’t, I would want to punish the executive more.  In such a case, perhaps a stiff fine and a short prison term would be in order.

Finally, if the executive willfully refused to know, I would punish that person much more harshly.  In other words, if the executive said “I don’t want to be told if there is anything wrong with this product,” they should be punished rather harshly.  Perhaps a very large fine and a medium prison term would be appropriate.

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