SWLAW Blog | Faculty

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January 8, 2019

Can a Utility Company be a Murderer? Professor Strader says...

 There is a great deal of chatter about whether murder charges can be brought against PG&E if it is found responsible for the deadly Northern California wildfires.

Southwestern Professor, Kelly Strader was quoted in the San Francisco Chronical (and other news outlets)  saying:

“If a responsible corporate officer possessed the required mental state for murder, and was acting within the scope of employment, then that crime could be attributed to the corporation,” [Strader] said a corporate officer’s conduct could implicate both the officer and the company in murder by “acting with an actual awareness that your actions endanger human life.”

The article lists the 1978 Ford Pinto exploding gas tank case* and a 2015 drug-treatment company case as precedent.

The California Attorney General (in the complaint) claims that if PG&E acted recklessly in failing to keep its lines and poles free of vegetation, and taking other steps to prevent fire, it could be guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the filing said. If the conduct was worse, showing a “conscious disregard for life,” it could be prosecuted as second-degree murder.

Read the full article here.

* The Ford case was tried under an Indiana law that allowed prosecutors to file murder charges, punishable by a fine of up to $30,000, against corporations implicated in “reckless homicide.”  The fuel tank design of the 1973 Pinto had already forced Ford to recall more than one million vehicles and led a Southern California jury to award $127 million in damages after another fatal crash in 1978.  Prosecutors in the criminal case contended the company had waited too long to start the recalls and failed to properly warn drivers. Ford’s lawyers said any vehicle would have exploded when hit from behind by a speeding van. The jury deliberated for more than three days before acquitting the company.

E-Mail us your thoughts with PG&E in the subject line.  We will update this post with some of the most compelling comments.