Corporate Moral Responsibility and the Ethics of Product Usage-Expanding Notions of Corporate Responsibility for Personal Injury

The statistics concerning product liability in the United States are staggering. According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, about 34 million people are injured or killed each year due to product-related accidents, making this the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 1 and 36. The estimated costs associated with these injures total about $12 billion per year.

In addition, tens of thousands of product-related personal injury lawsuits are filed against manufacturers annually. Injuries from products not only create liability issues for manufacturers, they also raise questions concerning a corporation’s moral responsibility.

The Growing Product Liability Phenomenon

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader brought widespread attention to the issue of product liability in his 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” in which he spotlighted what he viewed as the automobile industry’s failure to implement appropriate safety features in its vehicles. In particular, Nader targeted what he claimed was General Motors’ reluctance to modify the suspension system in the Chevrolet Corvair. Nader maintained that a faulty suspension caused the vehicle to sway and even roll over. Consequently, more than 100 lawsuits were filed against GM.

In the ensuing decades, notable product liability cases have included litigation against Ford due to an exploding gas tank in its Pinto model and McDonald’s because of a customer being burned by its hot coffee. Toy, tobacco, asbestos, and breast implant companies, among others, have also been the subject of litigation.

Increased Focus on Moral Responsibility

Noted twentieth-century economist Milton Friedman believed that corporations were legal entities only. Thus, while they could be held legally liable for their actions, they had no moral responsibility to those who were injured from product usage. Many corporations held the view that, as consumers’ unsafe use a product increases the likelihood of injury, a company bore little or no moral responsibility for injuries in these situations.

Along with an increase in the number of high-profile product liability cases in recent decades has come a radical transformation in the notion of a corporation’s moral responsibility for personal injuries caused when using its products. According to Manuel Velasquez, chair of the Santa Clara University Management Department, the traditional view of corporate moral responsibility held that a corporation should only be considered morally responsible for injuries its product caused if three conditions were present:

  • It caused the injures
  • It knew what it was doing
  • It could have prevented the injuries

Others took an even more extreme view.

The Prevailing View

According to Velazquez, the prevailing view these days is that corporations can be held morally responsible for injuries users inflict upon themselves, even if the company had no way to prevent them from occurring. The reasoning is that companies should be able to anticipate the damage their products could cause.

The breadth of a company’s moral responsibility now even extends to third parties it uses to conduct business. For example, a company is often held morally responsible for mistreatment inflicted by its suppliers on their workforce, such as the case with Wal-Mart in China. Gun manufacturers are viewed by many as morally responsible when one party uses their product to harm another.

Reasons for the Change

What has caused the shift in public perception concerning the level of moral and ethical responsibility companies should assume for product-related injuries? One likely reason is that, by and large, the tremendous level of negative publicity generated by the high-profile product liability cases in recent decades has led to corporations often being cast in the role of immoral and unethical villains who place profits over the safety of consumers. In essence, the public has taken the moral high ground and is telling corporations to “clean up their act.”

Another contributing factor is the rise of what David T. Risser of Penn State University referred to as utilize “collective moral responsibility,” a societal phenomenon where large organizations are increasingly being held morally accountable for widespread harm. Risser cited factors such as toxic waste spills, the rise of corporate fraud, and manufacturing of unsafe and defective products as leading causes of this group’s mindset.

Minimizing Your Exposure

How can your company minimize the risk of being viewed as morally irresponsible with regard to injuries caused by the use of your products? One way is to take additional steps to reduce the potential of injuries occurring in the first place. For instance, you can closely monitor your sales and marketing practices to decrease the chances of your products falling into the wrong hands or unintended use. If you utilize third-party suppliers, perform periodic spot inspections to evaluate and verify working conditions.

Another option is to form an ethics advisory committee that closely examines the various ethical dilemmas that could arise from the use of your products. The committee should consist of outside experts from a variety of areas who can explore theoretical moral and ethical issues from an unbiased perspective.

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