An ongoing trial in Georgia might or might not set any legal precedents, but it very well might be making a kind of history.
In Albany, three officials of the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America are standing trial in connection with the infamous salmonella outbreak of 2008-09 that left nine people dead and more than 700 others sick in 46 states, and led to one of the most massive food recalls ever.
You read that correctly: People are standing trial.
Among details that have emerged in testimony so far: Food and Drug Administration officials came to a nearby Blakely in January 2009, shortly after salmonella-tainted peanut butter had been traced to the plant there. The plant manager, Samuel Lightsey, said the only test that had detected salmonella turned out to be a false positive.
“It was finally on day five that Mr. Lightsey revealed they had had three positives for salmonella,” FDA inspector Bob Neligan testified, “and that would have been in the last year or so. We had continuously asked that from day one.”
After the FDA ordered the company to turn over two years of records, inspectors discovered that the company’s own lab tests had found salmonella in 12 lots of peanuts, peanut paste and peanut butter since 2007.
Now company owner and president Stewart Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, face charges of shipping contaminated food to customers and covering up damaging lab results; Steward Parnell and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson are charged with obstruction of justice. Lightsey, the plant manager who concealed positive tests from the FDA, pleaded guilty in May to nine criminal counts.
Nobody who has followed accounts of corporate wrongdoing over the last few years needs an explanation of how significant this case really is. Whether the issue has been “mere” financial misconduct like banking or defense procurement fraud, or far more tragic problems like automobile safety defects, a deadly sugar plant fire or an offshore oil rig explosion, the process usually involves somebody signing a big check, and nobody ever really being held responsible.
But as we have noted before, companies – their shareholders, their financial backers and their millions of honest, hard-working officers and employees – aren’t responsible for these kinds of wrongs. In every one of the tragedies cited above, human beings with names, faces and moral responsibilities made fateful, and ultimately fatal, decisions.
The trial judge in Albany said it could take up to two months just for the prosecution to present its case, and the guilt or innocence of the defendants will then be up to the court to decide. Meanwhile, somebody seems to have figured out that thinly spread “collective” guilt for deadly irresponsibility is a gross perversion of justice. It’s about time.