Today General Motors announced that it has fired 15 employees and disciplined five others in the wake of an internal investigation into the company’s handling of defective ignition switches, which lead to at least 13 fatalities.
But who’s legally responsible when a big corporation breaks the law? The government thinks it’s the corporation itself.
“What GM did was break the law … They failed to meet their public safety obligations,” scolded Sec of Transportation Anthony Foxx a few weeks ago after imposing the largest possible penalty on the giant automaker.
Attorney General Eric Holder was even more adamant recently when he announced the guilty plea of giant bank Credit Suisse to criminal charges for aiding rich Americans avoid paying taxes. “This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law.”
Tough words. But they rest on a bizarre premise. GM didn’t break the law, and Credit Suisse never acted above it. Corporations don’t do things. People do.
For a decade GM had been receiving complaints about the ignition switch but chose to do nothing. Who was at fault? Look toward the top. David Friedman, acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says those aware of the problem had ranged from engineers “all the way up through executives.”