Do GM executives belong in jail?

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A faulty ignition switch in tens of millions of General Motors cars, including the Chevy Cobalt, is implicated in at least 13 deaths since 2001. The ignition switch in these defective cars can be disabled by anything that puts pressure on the switch (whether a heavy key chain or the impact of a collision), causing the cars to stall and disabling power braking, power steering and air bags. Yet General Motors failed to recall the vehicles for nearly a decade, despite the deaths that resulted and despite a stream of customer complaints about the stalling problem.

Thursday, GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 employees and disciplined five others in the wake of an internal investigation into the company's handling of defective ignition switches.


General Motors has settled some of the claims related to the fatalities. Other cases remain. And U.S. investigators believe the number of fatalities may actually be higher than 13, since passengers in the back seats of cars that crashed do to appear to have been counted in the death toll.

If it can be proven that specific decision-makers at GM knew about the faulty ignition problem, could have predicted that more deaths would follow the first one and chose to wait on the recall, I believe those individuals should be charged with manslaughter or conspiracy to commit murder or premeditated murder. They should not be allowed to hide behind the nebulous façade of corporate malfeasance. RICO charges may also be in order.

Executives at car companies, or any other company, have a duty to the public. They cannot knowingly proffer goods that can predictably cause injury or death. Doing so should not just be viewed as a case of product liability. It should be viewed, in my opinion, as a case of premeditated, criminal behavior, exactly equal to mass murder.

If GM executives were balancing the cost of recalling about 20 million cars against the cost of settling a flurry of future lawsuits involving injuries or deaths, then that amoral calculus needs to be cut off at the knees – for them, specifically, and for any other corporate executives tempted to use a similar calculus to protect profits while failing to protect the public.

Moreover, from what is already known about the GM ignition switch problem and the deaths involved, it would be entirely appropriate for the public to boycott GM vehicles for a period of time – perhaps just a month for each death linked to the problem. That would be, at the current death toll (which is likely to rise), 13 months.

Capitalism is a force for good in the world. Corporate executives who put profit ahead of the lives of consumers are the enemy of capitalism, because they endanger the miracle of the free economy by undermining trust in free enterprise decision-making. And that assault on our economic system must be dealt with in a clear and decisive manner.

If it turns out to be the case, irrefutably, that General Motors executives knew that the faulty ignitions in millions of their small cars could cause, or were causing, deaths, and they did not initiate a costly recall, those executives and any other involved company officials must be fired, yes. But the most egregious of them should also be jailed.

And GM, once saved by the federal government from bankruptcy, will have proven itself morally bankrupt, unworthy of consumer dollars and rightfully destined for actual bankruptcy, without a grand display of remorse and restitution.