ST. LOUIS (Legal Newsline) – The question of supervisory liability was recently raised in an
appeals court case concerning salmonella in eggs.
July 2015, the nonprofit Washington Legal Foundation filed a brief in
the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit seeking a reversal of a
decision against Austin and Peter DeCoster, who own and operate
Quality Egg in Iowa.
According to the brief, a salmonella outbreak in
August 2010 was traced to Quality Egg, leading to a recall and an
investigation by the Food and Drug Administration. The DeCosters were
charged with violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibiting
the introduction of adulterated food to interstate commerce.
DeCosters pleaded guilty under an agreement that stipulated no
one associated with Quality Egg had any knowledge of the presence of
the salmonella contamination. Cory Andrews, senior litigation counsel
at the Washington Legal Foundation, told Legal Newsline that the district court accepted the
findings of the presentencing reports, with findings established not
beyond a reasonable doubt and containing some information that
suggested the DeCosters were negligent.
in addition to levying large fines, the judge in the case gave each
of the DeCosters a three-month jail sentence, citing that an
inference of careless oversight created a work environment conducive
to helping the outbreak occur.
concern for WLF with this case was the expansion and increasing use
at the federal level of the “responsible corporate officer”
doctrine, said Andrews, who filed the brief. CaseBriefs.com
summarized the doctrine as there needs to be evidence that a
corporate officer failed to prevent or correct a violation, despite
having the authority and responsibility to do so.
The case of United States v. Park is at the heart of the
told Legal Newsline that previously, when the Supreme Court has
upheld use of the doctrine, it said that the doctrine can only be
applied when the punishment is a minimal penalty – relatively small
fines and no jail time – and no great harm to reputation.
deprivation of liberty without proof beyond a reasonable doubt of
actual criminal intent or even criminal knowledge concerned us,”
Andrews said about the Quality Egg case.
July 6 of this year, the Eighth Circuit upheld the lower-court decision by a 2-1 vote. Judge Diana Murphy
wrote in the majority opinion that the district court “properly
considered relevant past conduct” in imposing the sentences.
Raymond Gruender concurred, although adding that “Park requires a
finding of negligence in order to convict a responsible corporate
C. Arlen Beam, in his dissenting opinion, wrote that there was no
proof the DeCosters had a guilty mind or negligence, and that the
prison sentences were given with no due process.
said the decision appears to reject the basic premise that an executive's punishment can be based on merely being the head of an
organization that is at the center of a controversy.
make it clear that some sort of blameworthy conduct is required,”
he said. “The concurring opinion, in particular, based its
affirment that the DeCosters were actually personally culpable based
on that presentence report.”
disagreeing with the court's opinion that the DeCosters were
personally culpable beyond a preponderance of the evidence, Andrews
said he thinks the opinion gives corporate executives in such a
situation additional support that they cannot be jailed just because
of their position in the company in the absence of blameworthy
terms of the doctrine, the 8th Circuit agrees with us that
you can't deprive someone of their liberty if they haven't been
personally blameworthy,” he said. “We think that's a good
precedent, and we're glad that two out of the three members of the
panel feel that way.”