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State officials call for more severe corporate manslaughter penalties

Following an outbreak of fungal meningitis linked to a Massachusetts pharmacy, many state officials are calling for stricter penalties for corporations found guilty of manslaughter.

The meningitis outbreak, linked to steroid injections distributed by the New England Compounding Center of Framingham, began in September.

As of Nov. 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported 478 cases of fungal meningitis across 19 states, accounting for 34 deaths — an increase of more than 10 fatalities in one month.

Following several reported outbreaks, on Oct. 6 the NECC issued a voluntary recall of all of its products, according to a statement released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“This action is being taken out of an abundance of caution due to the potential risk of contamination, and in cooperation with an investigation being conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Pharmacy,” the statement read.

Shortly after the recall, Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick spoke at a press conference on Oct. 23 regarding the pharmacy currently under investigation for the outbreak and the death of hundreds.

“Those whose laboratory practices caused this outbreak should never practice pharmacy or manufacture in Massachusetts again,” Patrick said.

While federal investigations are still ongoing, Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley has chosen to focus on increasing the penalty suffered by corporations convicted of manslaughter.

Coakley and a number of state officials have filed a bill calling for the increase in maximum compensation from such corporations convicted from $1,000 to $250,000.

In a Nov. 14 letter addressed to the Committee on Public Health, Coakley argued for the increase in monetary penalty, claiming that the current outbreak raises many questions about accountability.

“Currently, although individuals convicted of manslaughter may be imprisoned for up to 20 years, corporations convicted of manslaughter cannot be subject to imprisonment,” she wrote. “Therefore, the only penalty faced by corporations is a monetary fine.”

The existing law that established the $1,000 compensation cap is about 200 years old. Enacted in 1819, the law it has not been amended since the original signing, according to Coakley’s statement.

“We understand that there is no amount of money that can compensate for the loss of an individual’s life,” Coakley wrote. “However, $1,000 is a woefully inadequate penalty and not a meaningful deterrent.”

The House is currently in its third reading of the possible law and will continue to deliberate. Much of the decision falls to committee chairs Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, of Jamaica Plain, and Sen. Susan Fargo, of Lincoln.

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