Former CEO of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) Stewart Parnell walked into an Albany federal courtroom on Monday awaiting sentence and left a prisoner. In the harshest penalty ever delivered to a corporate executive for a food poisoning outbreak, Parnell will spend the next 28 years in federal prison. Parnell is 61-years-old.
In a case that has been ongoing since the initial salmonella scare in 2008, Parnell has been convicted of 72 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and for the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. Most importantly, the executive decisions that Parnell made as CEO of PCA, namely the choice to sell peanut butter paste that was tainted with salmonella to the public, injured over 700 people across the U.S. and killed 9. Such hard facts mark the end of a long downward spiral for a CEO who’d once publicly declared that his company produced the “finest peanut products” in the land.
An Old Trend with a New Face
While Parnell is the most recent executive to face allegations of taking actions that he knew could result in the injury and/or death of hundreds of U.S. citizens, he is certainly not one of a kind. Corporate America has long put profits before people. One need only look at the history of Big Tobacco or some producers of asbestos-containing products to see the blueprint for knowingly endangering human lives for the sake of continued profits. For decades, CEOs and executives hid the dangers of their asbestos-containing products and chose to put their lethal products on the market regardless of the associated health risks, completely disregarding worker and consumer safety.
The question remains then: why didn’t these other corporate executives also face similar prison sentences? The answer may lie in the fact that Parnell’s conviction and its subsequent sentencing is really the first of its kind. Food safety advocates and many in the American public are considering Parnell’s federal sentencing a groundbreaking move forward in cases of unchecked corporate greed, where the decisions of an elite few can result in the death or injuries of thousands of ordinary consumers, workers, and citizens. Bill Marler, the lawyer who represented several victims of PCA’s salmonella-containing peanut butter, stated, “honestly, I think the fact that he [Parnell] was prosecuted at all was a major victory for consumers.”
And Marler’s sentiment isn’t wrong. For years, corporate CEOs such as Lewis Brown of Johns Manville – whose products contained asbestos – a naturally-occurring mineral known to cause mesothelioma and other lethal diseases – knew the dangers of their asbestos-containing products and continued to put these products out on the market anyway. Unlike Parnell, they were not held accountable – at least not to the same extent. As a result of Johns Manville’s reckless decisions and many other companies with similar ideologies, thousands of Americans were injured and many have died due to asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. Each year alone, 3,200 new cases of mesothelioma are opened, and asbestos exposure is the only known cause of this rare type of cancer. CEOs like Lewis Brown never faced a prison sentence– largely because an effective system to hold these powerful executives accountable was not in place.
In a recent hearing before the House judiciary committee, Elihu Inselbuch, an attorney representing asbestos bankruptcy trusts summed it up well when he stated the companies that manufactured asbestos-containing products “. . . were not [just] guilty of fraud. They were guilty of murder.” But there will be no justice for those executives as they passed away many years ago. The only justice is that many of these companies are being held financially responsible by lawyers from Asbestos Law firms like Sokolove Law, which has been at the forefront of this litigation for over 30 years.
How Far Are Corporations Willing to Go to Make a Profit?
Corporations have the responsibility to warn consumers about the possible dangers associated with their products. The sentencing of former CEO Stewart Parnell to 28 years in federal prison marks a victory for the general public, as it is important to our nation’s commitment to justice and to hold powerful corporate executives and the companies they run responsible for their reckless actions. It’s also important to note that this victory is but one small victory in a mountain of ongoing legal battles.
At the heart of this is the much simpler albeit disturbing example of how far CEOs and other large corporations are willing to push the boundaries in order to make a profit. In the case of former PCA CEO Stewart Parnell, he was willing to go as far as necessary – so far, in fact, that he decided to put tainted peanut butter out on the market, completely disregarding the fact that many people would get sick or die. This authoritative action was taken at the expense of innocent Americans.
Parnell now faces 28 years of prison and is not eligible for a shortened sentence unless he wins an appeal. Plaintiff attorney Bill Marler went on to say, “this sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through the board rooms across the U.S.”
Let us hope that he’s right.