Employer Criminal Liability

By Murphy, Betty Southard; Barlow, Wayne E. et al. | Personnel Journal, December 1993 | Go to article overview
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Employer Criminal Liability

Murphy, Betty Southard, Barlow, Wayne E., Hatch, D. Diane, Personnel Journal

Guilty PLEAS OF INVOLUNTARY manslaughter were entered by three former employees of Film Recovery Systems, Inc. for the 1983 cyanide poisoning death of a 61-year-old Polish immigrant. The application of criminal homicide laws to an occupational death was reportedly the first of its kind in the United States.

In 1982, Stefan Golab began working for Film Recovery Systems. His job was to extract silver from used X-ray and photographic film by soaking the film in vats containing a 2% cyanide wash solution. Golab collapsed over a vat and died in 1983. A medical examiner ruled the cause of death was acute cyanide poisoning caused by inhalation of cyanide fumes.

According to the prosecution, the company's employees included undocumented workers who spoke no English, and who worked in unventilated conditions over vats of cyanide solution. For at least 15 months prior to Golab's death, these workers complained of headaches, nausea and vomiting--reportedly classic symptoms of cyanide poisoning. In response to the complaints, management told the employees to go out and get some fresh air and that they could work elsewhere if they didn't like it.

Charles O'Neil, former president of Film Recovery; Daniel Rodriguez, former plant foreman; and Charles Kirschbaum, a former plant manager, were convicted of murder in 1985, sentenced to 25 years in prison and each ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

The decision was reversed and remanded in 1990 by an Illinois Appellate Court on the grounds that the murder convictions were legally inconsistent with the manslaughter convictions of two other corporate defendants in the case.

The Illinois Supreme Court had ruled in 1989 that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act did not preempt Illinois from prosecuting the corporation and its officers for criminal homicide. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that decision.

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