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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: The folly of justice

October 8, 2009
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Exxon-Mobil Corporation in August pleaded guilty in a U.S. district court to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in five states during the past five years. The company agreed to pay fines and community service payments totaling $600,000 and will implement an environmental compliance plan during the next three years to prevent bird deaths on the company’s sites. Exxon-Mobil has already spent more than $2.5 million to begin implementation of the plan, according to the Department of Justice.

Approximately 85 protected birds, including waterfowl, hawks and owls, died at Exxon-Mobil drilling and production facilities between 2004 and 2009. Most of the birds died after exposure to hydrocarbons in uncovered natural gas well reserve pits and wastewater storage facilities.

Also in August, OSHA cited a transport company following a fatal accident. A 62-year-old employee was preparing to pump a load of liquid asphalt for road construction from one parked truck to another. He was crushed and killed when one of the trucks unexpectedly rolled into the other because its parking brake wasn’t set and the wheels were not chocked (an alleged serious violation), pinning the man between the two trucks. Plus, the OSHA regional administrator said the company failed to report the fatality within the required eight hours (an alleged other-than-serious violation).

The proposed penalty: $9,100.

Tongue lashings vs. multi-million-dollar fines

One company runs afoul (pun intended) of a law protecting birds and pays in total more than $3 million to make amends, and sets up an entire new compliance program. In a case where a man is killed on the job, in what OSHA’s regional administrator called a “senseless and completely preventable” accident, the proposed fine is about $9,000.

In court, I wonder, did the Department of Justice attorneys describe Exxon-Mobil’s killing of the migratory birds as “senseless and preventable”?

It makes no difference.

Lip service far too often substitutes for serious legal consequences after workplace fatalities. I don’t know enough of the details surrounding the trucking incident, but more than 5,000 people each year die on the job and very, very seldom is any individual or individuals judged responsible and jailed, or a multi-million-dollar compliance plan mandated. The restrictions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the workers’ compensation “shield” see to that.

Compare the consequences of the loss of bird life to human life and it appears: a) water fowl, hawks and owls have better Washington lobbyists than humans; b) birds get better press — the Associated Press devoted all of a 127-word new brief about the OSHA fine; c) Congressional lawmakers have a soft spot for migratory birds and a blind spot for workers “senselessly” killed on the job; and d) DOJ attorneys have an easier time prosecuting companies for killing birds than for killing humans. Restrictions of the OSH Act don’t make it worth their while.

De-humanizing humans

These two cases mirror weird developments in our social conscience. The recent film, “Inglorious Basterds,” climaxes with a bombastic bloody massacre of Nazis top brass and their wives and girlfriends trapped in a movie theatre. During the film, Nazis are repeatedly scalped and/or carved in the forehead with a swastika.

Imagine a film where a herd of buffalo is graphically gunned down. Revolting, right? All summer long blockbuster sci-fi thrillers and horror flicks had characters tortured, mutilated and murdered in ways too inventive and numerous to count. But have a horse killed by a stray bullet and the film producers best issue a press release in advance assuring us the horse was a dummy.

Another example of compassion for pets getting more press than compassion for people: the sorry case of pro football quarterback Michael Vick. Sports columnists in Philadelphia still howl over why the Philadelphia Eagles ever hired Vick. Did they lose their minds? Vick was convicted along with two other men of breeding and training fighting dogs, hosting dogfights, killing dogs considered unable to fight and traveling out of state for dogfights. At least eight dogs were killed by various methods, including hanging, drowning and beating after the dogs did not perform well in “testing” sessions for dog fights at Vick’s Virginia estate.

In December, 2007, a U.S. district judge sentenced Vick to 23 months in prison and lectured the former star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, “You were instrumental in… cruel and inhumane sporting activity.” Vick served 18 months of the sentence.

Getting much less attention this year is the case of a former Eagles player, Donte Stallworth. Stallworth pleaded guilty to hitting and killing a pedestrian while driving drunk at 7:15 one morning this past March. Stallworth drew a 30-day jail sentence and reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the family of the man, who was leaving his job as a crane operator when killed.

Stallworth has been suspended from play for the 2009 season by the NFL commissioner. When some team hires him in 2010, he won’t face howls of protest.

Leonard Little didn’t. After a drunken birthday in 1998, NFL star Little drove his Lincoln Navigator through a red light and crashed into a 47-year-old mother. She died the next day. Little received 60 days and 1,000 hours of community service. Six years later, after the involuntary manslaughter conviction was wiped from his record, Little was again arrested for drunk driving.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “inhumane” as “an act lacking in compassion or pity, brutal, not possessing desirable human qualities.” Hanging dogs certainly meets this criteria. Also brutal and “not possessing desirable human qualities” is blowing through a red light and killing a mom, or running a man down returning from work. We accept brutal acts in films and video games, reckless acts that end in senseless workplace deaths (of someone somewhere else) without much evident compassion or pity. Inhumane, you could say.

Sensitivities toward animal life have become more civilized, all for the good. Sensitivity to loss of human life, unless on a mass scale or one is personally touched by the tragedy, is if anything less thoughtful. Not good.

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