The U.K.'s "Corporate Manslaughter" Statute:
British Versus American Approaches to Making Firms Responsible for Deaths Resulting from Gross Negligence

By ANTHONY J. SEBOK
Tuesday, Jul. 31, 2007

Last week, the British government agreed to introduce a new law titled the "Corporate Manslaughter Statute." This law is remarkable because it attempts to make companies--not persons--criminally responsible for deaths caused by a firm's gross negligence. In this column, I will examine the law's structure, its history, and finally, I will ask how American law approaches the same problems the Corporate Manslaughter Act is designed to solve.

The Corporate Manslaughter Act

The British law allows the state to prosecute a corporation or partnership (an "organization" for short) for the crime of manslaughter if the organization causes the death of a person as the result of its "gross" breach of a duty owed under the law of negligence. However, in order for the state to prove its case, it must prove that a substantial element of the gross breach of duty resulted from the way in which the organization's activities were "managed or organised by its senior management."

The penalties for violating the act are quite interesting. First, a court can impose unlimited financial penalties on the organization, once it is convicted. Second, a court may issue a "publicity order," which requires the organization to publicly announce (through advertisements, it seems) that it has been successfully prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and is subject to any other penalties the court may have ordered.

The third and final potential penalty is that the court can order the organization to publicly take remedial steps to correct the conditions that led to the breach of duty. This penalty could have potentially far-reaching consequences, depending on how the courts choose to interpret it. For example, under this remedy, suppose a court decides that a design defect was the result of conscious indifference to the safety of others (such as in the famous Ford Pinto case). The court could simply order a manufacturer to change the design of their product--a power that no American court currently possesses.

The Impetus for the British Law: Spectacular and Disturbing Accidents

The most direct explanation for the advent of the British law is that there have been a number of spectacular industrial and transportation accidents in the United Kingdom since the Thatcher era of privatization. This is especially true in the area of rail traffic, where the public has become increasingly uneasy about the degree to which the private train operators who took over public lines have placed profit about the public good.

The Southall rail crash of 1997, in which 10 people died in a high-speed train in London, illustrated for many the weakness of the old laws. The company that operated the train, GWT, was prosecuted for common-law manslaughter, but the case failed, despite the voluminous evidence that there was a systematic failure of safety management. Similar disasters involving ferry wrecks and gas works explosions helped reinforce the impression that corporations were not answerable in court because senior management always pointed the finger at someone else.

British versus American Law on Corporate Responsibility

In the United States, as in England, it is very difficult to hold either organizations or their officers responsible for gross negligence. For example, while many law students learn about the success civil tort plaintiffs had in suing Ford for failing to spend $13 per car to strengthen a gas tank known to be vulnerable to rear- end collisions, few learn that, at the same time, a prosecutor brought a case in criminal negligence against Ford in Indiana—and lost the jury trial.

Government regulation and prosecutions could, in theory, lead to more effective deterrence, but the record suggests that they are not yet a sufficient deterrent force. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) authorizes criminal penalties against companies that do not comply with OSHA's requirements. These penalties, on paper, look fearsome--up to a $250,000 fine for an individual, and up to a $500,000 fine for a corporation. But in reality, they are rarely assessed against corporate defendants.

The one thing America has that the United Kingdom does not, is punitive damages. Punitive damages serve, in many ways, the same purpose as the unlimited monetary fines authorized by the Corporate Manslaughter Act. In fact, it may merely be a coincidence, but it should be noted that Britain, through a series of High Court decisions, made it almost impossible for a court to impose punitive damages on a defendant (individual or organization) after 1976. Perhaps the new law is filling in a lacuna left by the retreat from punitive damages in the Commonwealth court systems.

Britain's Corporate Manslaughter Act and America's punitive damages system differ in one significant way, however. Since the Corporate Manslaughter Act is a public criminal law, no prosecution of an organization can occur without the permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions. On the other hand, in America, a tort plaintiff is the "master of his own complaint." He does not need permission from the state to pursue private punishment, although he does still need to persuade a jury of his version of the facts of the case and persuade a judge not to dismiss it for legal deficiencies.

In practice, the availability of punitive damages through the jury system places a tremendous amount of autonomy in the hands of private litigants and their lawyers, but the new British law does not really seem to view the lack of "victim autonomy" to be a problem. It may be that British lawmakers assume that the Director of Public Prosecutions will have an agenda that reflects the feelings of the true victims of organizational misfeasance. However, whether this is actually the case remains to be seen, and may become evident in the coming months or years.

In conclusion, the new Corporate Manslaughter Act is a fascinating experiment. Americans who are interested in deterring organizational wrongdoing should watch carefully to see how British judges apply the law, which prosecutions are and are not brought, and whether the law has a measurable, positive impact on either accident costs or liability costs. If the U.S. Supreme Court continues to cut back on the availability of punitive damages under state and federal law, perhaps the gap in deterrence--if there is one--created by the Supreme Court's recent decisions could, in the future, be filled by something like the Corporate Manslaughter Act.


Anthony J. Sebok, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. His other columns on tort issues may be found in the archive of his columns on this site.