BOSTON — Corporations facing manslaughter accusations will be penalized at least $250,000 under a bill the Massachusetts Senate unanimously approved in an effort to hold companies accountable for criminally negligent behavior.
Corporations currently face a manslaughter penalty of just $1,000 under a nearly 200-year-old state law. Supporters of the law point out that individuals convicted of manslaughter can face up to 20 years in prison.
Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said the proposed change in the law “will bring meaningful penalties against corporations convicted of manslaughter and ensure that corporations are held accountable for their actions.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley has pushed for the update in the law in the wake of a ceiling panel collapse in the Big Dig in 2006, but lawmakers failed to increase the penalty in the years following.
The collapse killed Milena Del Valle, of Boston, 39, and injured her husband when their car was crushed as it traveled through the project’s Interstate 90 connector tunnel.
Coakley said in a statement Thursday that the bill would help her office hold corporations responsible for their actions.
“While no monetary sum can compensate for the loss of a loved one, the current $1,000 penalty is woefully inadequate,” Coakley said.
Sen. Bruce Tarr, who has also pushed for update, said it’s unacceptable that the penalty hasn’t been changed yet.
“The vast majority of businesses in Massachusetts do so with a sense of conscience,” said Tarr, R-Gloucester, during Thursday’s debate, adding “that’s why it’s completely inappropriate for the law to say that $1,000 will be the penalty for those who deviate.”
The bill also includes the possibility that corporations convicted of manslaughter could be barred from receiving state contracts for up to 10 years.
The proposed change has met with little opposition from the business community.
The Big Dig ceiling panel collapse helped bring the outdated penalty to light. The existing penalty was first signed into law by Gov. John Brooks in 1819.
Powers Fasteners, a New York company that marketed and distributed the epoxy anchor bolt system used in the tunnel, was indicted on manslaughter charges in 2007 in connection with Del Valle’s death but faced the maximum fine of just $1,000.
The case was ultimately resolved when prosecutors dropped the charge after the company agreed to pay $16 million to settle a civil complaint and take steps to prevent the wrong types of epoxy from being used by its customers.
Debate over the penalty resurfaced again in the fallout from a 2011 fungal meningitis outbreak traced to tainted steroids produced by a now-defunct compounding pharmacy in Framingham last year that killed 63 people and sickened hundreds more.
The bill now heads to the Massachusetts House.