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New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Attorney Discuses Ignition Switch Testimony by GM CEO

On Behalf of | May 5, 2014 | Blog, Uncategorized |

Or… “This is why we have punitive damages.”

People who don’t understand how the law works like to talk about how the law works. Most of those opinions are under-informed at best, and politically motivated and biased, at worst.

But it doesn’t stop people from having an opinion, because in this country, regrettably, we’ve been taught that everybody’s opinion is “valuable” and everyone has a “right” to one. I don’t personally believe that, actually. I think that having a “right” to an opinion is one thing; expressing opinions that make one look like a fool – or a shill – on the other hand, is a different matter.

One of the opinions I’ve heard a lot about is the fact that “punitive damages” are somehow bad for America, because they’re bad for corporations. In the new post-Orwellian state of affairs, what’s good for corporations – for “business” – tends rather automatically to be swallowed as what’s good for America.

Of course, few people truly understand why we have punitive damages. Lawyers do. And corporate wrong-doers do.

Punitive damages are meant to punish malicious, evil minded or intentional conduct. They’re not meant to punish “negligent” or “careless” conduct. If you operate your motor vehicle in a way that’s careless and you accidently injure somebody, you’re going to be responsible for compensatory damages, but not punitive damages. You’re not being “punished,” because you didn’t do anything “morally” wrong. You weren’t evil minded, malicious or reprehensible. You were simply careless. It happens to everyone.

On the other hand, corporations love to figure out what the cost per injury or death might be for a defective product or shoddy standard – in other words, how much they’re going to have to spend in lawsuits – and then decide whether or not they actually want to make the change. After all, why do the right thing – the slightly more expensive thing if you don’t have to?

Don’t believe it? It’s been happening for the last fifty years. Corporations will decide how much money litigation’s going to cost them, and then decide whether or not they want to spend money to prevent the litigation, or not spend the money, and settle a certain number of lawsuits. If the amount of money they need to spend to prevent injury or deaths is a great deal more than the amount of money they think they’re going lose to lawsuits over those injuries or deaths, then they tend not to make the change.

This is because corporations aren’t people; they don’t have souls. It’s also because the people that run corporations aren’t personally responsible, civilly or criminally, for what the corporations do.

I’m sitting and watching the testimony of GM CEO Mary T. Barra and I’m thinking to myself, “This is why we have punitive damages.” GM sat on the information that the faulty ignition switches were dangerous and could cause injury or death. They sat on this information for twenty (20) years. They allowed people to be injured and to be killed because they weren’t sure whether or not they wanted to spend the money – pennies per unit! – to recall all the vehicles and replace the faulty ignition switches.

If an individual person did this, or better yet, if an individual GM Executive were held responsible for this, you can bet your asses that the change would’ve been made. But we forgive corporations because even though they are “people” in the sense that they can contribute billions of dollars to right wing candidates, they’re not people enough to have a soul or a conscience.

This is why we have punitive damages. To make corporations unwilling or unable to cynically calculate the human cost for what amounts to murder, and then make business decisions. This GM debacle, as well as Enron, ATT World Com, Tyco, and Wall Street greed. If you don’t punish people in a way that they can’t predict, and can’t account for before the fact, they become a lot more cautious about deciding that injuries and deaths are the cost of doing business.

Punitive damages as a weapon of justice is the closest we’re ever going to come to having corporations have a conscience.