Courts encourage businesses to harm more people

The more people harmed by a corporation’s negligence, the lower the court penalty for environmental and occupational health offences is likely to be, researchers have found.

Loran Nordgren and Mary McDonnell, writing in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science discovered the phenomenon held up in both theoretical and real life cases. Their examination of the sentences in real world US court cases involving occupational and environmental health crimes, where people were found guilty but where the numbers of victims varied, gave clear cut results echoing those of the laboratory studies.

The researchers examined 136 representative cases between 2000-2009 in which individuals from corporations had been found guilty by juries of negligently exposing members of the public to asbestos, lead paint or toxic mould, and where their victims had all suffered significantly. They confirmed those who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive penalties than those who harm a smaller number.

Commenting on the findings in his Bad Science column in the Guardian, Ben Goldacre concluded factors that may play a contributory role include “cases where lots of people were harmed may involve larger companies, with more expensive and competent lawyers, for example, or larger and more deniable lines of responsibility. But in the light of their earlier experiment, it’s hard to discount the contributory effect of empathy, and this is a phenomenon we all recognise.”

Dr Irving Selikoff, probably the most celebrated occupational health doctor of the last century, once commented: “Statistics are people with the tears wiped away.” But when you only see the numbers and not the victims, in what the study authors term “the scope-severity paradox”, the human cost is disguised and the penalty reduced.

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