09/29/2015 10:42 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

CEO's Jail Sentence: One Way the Justice System Holds Negligent Corporations Accountable

Last week, Stewart Parnell, former owner, president, and CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people. Parnell knew PCA's internal testing was consistently indicating a persistent salmonella infection, but ordered contaminated products be shipped anyway, writing in internal emails, "just ship it," and "turn them loose." Parnell was found guilty last fall of 71 criminal counts, including conspiracy, fraud, and obstruction of justice.

Parnell's sentence is unprecedented in a food-poisoning case. The food industry, and corporate interests in general, would have you believe this is because Parnell is an exception. Executives at U.S. corporations may well be motivated by profits, but few are immoral enough to risk actually killing people. But while that is hopefully true, what about the other exceptions? What about the DeCoster Eggs' executives who knew their eggs were contaminated with salmonella and sickened an estimated 62,000 people, but were only sentenced to three months in federal confinement? Or the Jensen brothers, whose listeria-contaminated cantaloupes killed 33 people in 2011, and who were sentenced to five years' probation?

For that matter, what about the corporate executives in other industries who, like Parnell, put profits ahead of safety? Last week, General Motors paid a $900 million fine to avoid a criminal investigation into its ignition switch fault which killed at least 124 people meaning not one of the GM engineers and lawyers who knew about the defect for more than a decade will face a criminal charge. No high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the shenanigans that caused the recent global financial crisis, despite subsequent investigations that found fraud was endemic in the financial sector. And while the lethal consequences of asbestos have been known for at least a century, killing hundreds of thousands of American veterans, workers, and innocent citizens who had the incredible misfortune of breathing in its presence, not a single executive has been convicted by a U.S. court for putting this deadly carcinogen into the stream of commerce.

Stewart Parnell's sentence may be unprecedented but his actions are not. Time and time again, corporate executives have put profits before safety and killed or injured consumers. Whole industries - asbestos, tobacco - have been built on the lives of Americans, and criminal repercussions have been few and far between. Even as justice was done this week in a criminal court, we must not forget that it is the civil justice system--the very justice system under constant attack from corporate interests--that has proven time and again to be the most effective, and sometimes the only, mechanism for deterring negligent behavior.