PG&E’s Recent Punishment in Camp Fire Deaths Not Adequate for its Crime

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Writing in The Hill, Michigan Ross Professor Will Thomas argues that our system goes easy on corporate crime.

Photo of PG&E headquarters

Pacific Gas & Electric must pay a $3.5 million fine for its role in 2018’s “Camp Fire” in California — but that punishment doesn't reflect the seriousness of criminal activity that caused the deaths of dozens of Californians, according to Michigan Ross Professor Will Thomas.

Will Thomas

In a new op-ed essay for The Hill, Thomas explains that by being convicted of 84 counts of manslaughter rather than arson, PG&E avoided what could have been a fine of $200 million. The case illustrates how the criminal justice system favors companies over individuals, Thomas argues.

“Corporations receive a privileged legal status in our society, which is captured by the notion that a corporation is a legal person. But if corporations are going to receive the benefits of legal personhood, they should have to accept its burdens,” Thomas writes. “Otherwise, in a world of ever-expanding corporate rights, exempting corporations from criminal liability creates a two-tier system of legal personhood — one where, perversely, we individuals are relegated to the bottom tier.”

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Will Thomas is an assistant professor of business law at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

Media Contact: Bridget Vis, Public Relations Specialist, visb@umich.edu