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Who Really Gets Held Responsible


Back in September, a large corporation gave a rather large sum of money as payment to the government for “concealing a deadly ignition switch from regulators” (USA Today).

General Motors agreed to pay $900 million dollars, estimated to be near one-third of the company’s 2014 earnings, and while that amount may seem like a lot, it’s not enough to truly hurt the company which is still valued at just under 30 dollars per share.

While the payout may not be a surprise to many, the fact that no single person has been held responsible for deaths associated with the faulty ignition, which GM knew about for over a decade and failed to report to consumers, is confusing.

Alternatively, the CEO of Peanut Corp. of America was recently sentenced to 28 years in prison for “his role in a salmonella outbreak linked to nine deaths” (USA Today). And the former head of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, stepped down from his position to take responsibility for the company’s recent scandal, despite the claim that he had no previous knowledge of software which can deceive emissions tests.

When comparing these results, the average consumer, rather expectedly, has a question: How is responsibility determined? The answer to the puzzle lies in the settlements received by the victim’s families.

In criminal law, the state prosecutes, and in personal injury cases, the individual seeks to recoup monetary value for damages. Currently, GM has doled out over $200 million to families, with each family receiving at least $1 million dollars, and depending on how one looks at the situation, this is either a necessity or a distraction from holding top officials responsible.

Volkswagen’s deception caused the resignation of its top official and a slew of lawsuits, Peanut Corporation’s failure to act results in a 28-year prison sentence, but General Motors, whose faulty ignition switches caused the death of over 100 people paid one-third of its yearly earnings to the government.

In essence, the law attempts to determine how different parties play different roles in every situation and then proceeds either in prosecution or litigation accordingly. Either way, attorneys typically seek the highest penalty possible for any party deemed responsible.