now than there are days in the year. But there’s another kind of mass murder that involves no guns, blood, or violence at all. The corporate kind.
Take asbestos poisoning. For most of 20th century and to the present day, asbestos companies have lied about the lethal hazards of their product and fought (and continue to fight) anyone who brings a claim. Industry’s decades-long cover-up of wrongdoing has led to millions of deaths (with more each year). Author Paul Brodeur called the asbestos industry’s conduct “corporate malfeasance and inhumanity to man which is unparalleled in the annals of the private-enterprise system” and “perhaps the greatest corporate mass murder in history.” (See more .)
In the first half of the 20th century, asbestos and insurance companies lobbied to change workers’ compensation laws to protect themselves from litigation (workers compensation laws strip workers of their right to sue). Eventually, trial lawyers figured out that manufacturers could and should be liable under products liability laws. In the 1970s, they began to try that innovative theory in court. At the time, no one had any idea that the industry knew about the link between asbestos exposure and disease. Without such evidence, trial lawyers lost many early cases, failing to even get before juries, getting paid nothing and going into debt. But they kept at it. After nearly a decade of difficult discovery, which the industry fought at every turn, these attorneys were finally able to piece together a record, and start getting some type of justice for victims. As we now know, this record told a story of shocking corporate misconduct going back five decades.
Then there’s tobacco. The tobacco industry lied about the lethal hazards of their product and fought (and continue to fight) anyone who brings a claim. (Sound familiar?) As a result of Big Tobacco’s hideous corporate behavior, billions have and continue to die worldwide. In 1983, the first-ever jury award came down against the tobacco industry for causing a smoker’s death. At that point, the industry freaked-out and began lobbying for product liability legislation to immunize itself from suit. A number of states passed such laws.
So states began challenging the tobacco industry with a different strategy. Rather than representing individual smokers, they sought to recoup health care costs due to smoking-related illnesses. They argued that the tobacco industry had profited from knowingly fraudulent and dangerous marketing and sales activities. One of the most important suits was brought by Minnesota’s Attorney General. The industry fought this case hard, but ultimately settled before the jury went out. Part of the settlement involved releasing 30 million pages of internal documents that showed an industry engaging in active fraud on the public and aggressively marketing a dangerous product to kids. The release of those documents created a seismic shift in opinion against Big Tobacco. (See more .)
Creative civil lawyering has been the key to getting at these gigantic, corporate criminal enterprises, since criminal laws and sanctions usually fall vastly short. You can’t throw an industry in jail, for example.
This brings us to opioids, today’s most talked-about public health disaster. In terms of the number of deaths and the costly toll on local communities – law enforcement, health care systems, etc. - the are . While drug companies’ responsibility for creating this epidemic may be clear, holding them legally accountable is another story. But one local Oklahoma judge just figured out a way to do it.
In a damning 42-page , Judge Thad Balkman determined that Johnson & Johnson ran a ‘false and dangerous’ sales campaign that led to addiction and death in the state, as well as helping to fuel the worst drug epidemic in US history.” This was a of Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, and the judge hit J&J with a $572 million judgement. J&J and corporate lobby groups have been jumping up and down ever since, attacking the judge’s reliance on public nuisance law, denouncing the decision and fear-mongering. It’s very reminiscent of how the asbestos and tobacco industries started reacting when judges and juries finally got to evaluate evidence and hold corporations accountable for making and marketing their lethal products. Now drug companies are worried. Good.