Friday, March 16, 2012

US Justice and Personal Responsibility: Three Fatal Events, Three Outcomes

Here are three cases that have gotten some publicity in the last month.

Case 1: Mine operators ignore safety regulations,  two mine cave-ins kill nine miners.  No individuals responsible.  (See Washington Post article for details.)

Nine people die in mine collapse.  Company had various violations of safety issues and including not carrying out required actions.  Company pleads guilty to two misdemeanors and was fined $500,000.  No officers of the company face any charges.

There were some other settlements to the families.  The article has all the details.  I'm looking at a broader idea in this post.

Case 2: Rutgers student who secretly videotaped his roommate having gay sex and broadcast it to others, leading his roommate to commit suicide, faces up to ten years in prison. (Boston Globe)

Case 3:  Architect who intentionally put outdoor fire places inside mansion after building, against regulations and after inspectors checked the site, which led to a fire in which two firefighters died, faces involuntary manslaughter charges. (Los Angeles Times)

No cases is simple and there are lots of details that the links offer to the cases.  But common to them all is that people died due to someone else's actions (or inactions.)  In the mine and fire cases, the responsible parties appear to have knowingly violated a law they were responsible to uphold.  They were also people in positions of professional responsibility who stood to profit from their illegal actions, ignoring the danger they were causing others. 

In the student case, it's unclear that the videotaper knew he was violating the law, but he surely was pushing the limits of interpersonal decency and privacy. 

There are lots of questions around these cases:
  • How have lobbyists for the mining industry helped to shape laws that shield owners and officers of mining companies from personal liability?
  • Are there factors we use to evaluate unintentional death due to another's carelessness?  
    • How much could someone, because of education/training, position, legal obligations, should be aware of his actions put others in risk?
    • Whether someone has done something (or not done something) against legal orders that caused the death (or injuries)?
    • Whether someone has taken action which a 'reasonable' person would assume could lead to serious consequences including death or (in the case of the students) could lead the victim to respond drastically?  
  • To what extent can we be responsible for how people 
  •  How do we deal with the way that modern technology to magnify what in prior times would have had less drastic consequences?  (As in the student's ability to broadcast live his roommate's tryst.)
  • How does the political notion of personal responsibility - often bandied about by politicians talking about poor people and petty criminals - actually play out when people's lives are seriously disrupted or ended by carelessness and/or callousness?
Life is complicated.  Laws are written incrementally, without all of them being compared for fairness against all other laws.  And even if there were a commission charged to review all laws relating to people who cause death, the  imbalance  of political and economic power in the US would probably mean those with power would make sure their interests were looked after. 

And how do we deal with structural causes of death - such as when soldiers are sent to war despite their mental instability?  Or medical errors in hospitals?  Or when one nation's economy benefits from another's misery - such as rich countries getting cheap goods from weak labor and environmental laws in poor countries?   When does collective culpability become individual responsibility and vice versa?

Or from people ignoring all these issues because they can?  Until it affects them?  Like the architect and the mine owners and the Rutgers student who suddenly find themselves in the spotlight?  Though the brightness of the spotlights vary greatly. 

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