Business Law Newsletters
Companies Listed on the New York Stock Exchange)
Corporations were not initially held criminally responsible for corporate activities. A corporation was considered to be a legally fictitious entity, incapable of forming the mens rea necessary to commit a criminal act. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected this notion in 1909 in New York Central & Hudson River Railroad v. U.S. A railroad company employee paid rebates to shippers in violation of federal law. The court upheld the corporation's criminal conviction, finding no reason that corporations could not be held "responsible for and charged with the knowledge and purposes of their agents, acting within the authority conferred upon them." The Supreme Court concluded that criminal liability could be imputed to the corporation based on the benefit it received as a result of the criminal acts of its agents. The case and its progeny have essentially imported the doctrine of respondeat superior from tort law into the corporate criminal realm. A corporation may be convicted for its agent's unlawful acts when the agent acted within the scope of his or her actual or apparent authority. Another theory of corporate criminal liability is the "collective knowledge doctrine." As knowledge of criminal activity is often the scienter element of a particular crime, the requisite knowledge can be imputed to the corporation based on the collective knowledge of the directors and officers.
Employers have a general duty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to provide a workplace free from "recognized" hazards. A violation of this duty can lead to criminal sanctions in addition to civil penalties. An employer can also be exposed to liability under occupational safety and health regulations promulgated by the Secretary of the Department of Labor. Directors and high-level executive officers must act to reduce or eliminate workplace dangers or risk OSHA liability.