Massachusetts' highest court ruled Wednesday that corporations can't face criminal charges in cases where none of their employees committed a crime, calling the theory "illogical."
The Supreme Judicial Court ruling came in a case in which an Acton nursing home owner was charged with involuntary manslaughter after a patient in a wheelchair toppled down the stairs to her death in 2004.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley's office charged Life Care Centers of America Inc. with involuntary manslaughter, arguing the charge was justified due to a combination of various staff mistakes, none of which was criminal.
The SJC flatly rejected the argument, saying the AG can't combine actions that were at worst negligent, and then charge the company with a crime.
"This theory is illogical and such an argument cannot succeed," the court wrote. "If at least one employee did not act wantonly or recklessly, then the corporation cannot be held to a higher standard of culpability by combining various employees' acts."
Coakley's office said it was disappointed by the decision, but it has not dropped the charge. Spokeswoman Emily LaGrassa said the AG was deciding whether to proceed based on possible criminal liability by a nursing supervisor.
In a statement, Beecher Hunter, president of Cleveland, Tenn.-based Life Care Centers of America, said the company was "delighted" with the ruling and said it "sent an important statement, not just for Life Care, but on a national level for criminal corporate law."
At least two other companies have been charged recently in Massachusetts with involuntary manslaughter.
In 2007, epoxy supplier Power Fasteners of Brewster, N.Y., was indicted after a Boston motorist was crushed by a falling ceiling panel in a Big Dig tunnel. As part of a deal with federal prosecutors, the company pleaded guilty last year to a charge of making a false statement and agreed to a $100,000 fine.
The Westfield Sportsman's Club was charged after an 8-year-old Connecticut boy accidentally shot himself in the head with an Uzi during a 2008 gun fair at the club. In March, the club pleaded no contest and paid a $1,000 fine, the maximum it faced under state law, though Coakley has pushed to increase the fine to $250,000. Three men face involuntary manslaughter charges in the boy's death, but none were club employees.
An attorney for the club said he had not seen the nursing home decision and could not immediately comment.
In the Life Care Centers case, 74-year-old Julia McCauley, who suffered from brain damage and dementia, was killed after her wheelchair tumbled down steps outside the Acton facility. A doctor had ordered that McCauley wear a signaling device to prevent her from leaving the nursing home unattended, but she didn't have it on the night she died because a substitute nurse didn't know she needed it and a treatment sheet didn't mention it. After being taken near the front door, McCauley wheeled herself outside and down the steps.
Coakley's office argued the involuntary manslaughter charge was warranted "by aggregating the knowledge and actions of multiple employees even if no one employee was criminally liable individually for the crime," according to SJC decision.
But the SJC said it has repeatedly ruled that a person at a corporation must have committed a crime in order for the whole corporation to be criminally charged.
"In our view, such aggregation of less culpable behavior to create more culpable behavior is not only illogical, it raises due process concerns," the court wrote.
This program aired on May 20, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.