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Can corporations kill?
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If Hollywood has taught me anything, it's that working for a multinational corporation (or investigating one as a journalist) carries the risk you'll uncover damning information revealing a vast criminal conspiracy, which will lead to your attempted murder (if you're the main character) or your successful murder (if you're the main character's source/best friend/avuncular mentor). This got me wondering: Has this ever happened? Has a modern corporation ever conspired to kill someone who got too curious to keep the money rolling in? —Clayton, Boston

As with many of the knotty questions of our times, we need to slice this into more digestible bits. Let's take it a step at a time.

Q: Have corporations ever killed people?

A: Sure, happens all the time. That's why we have wrongful-death lawsuits.

Q: I mean intentionally killed people.

A: Define intentionally. There are lots of cases, most of them admittedly pretty ancient, in which big companies trying to bust a union hired armed . . . well, "thugs" is a prejudicial term. Armed individuals, which it then sent into labor strongholds to beat the crap out of . . . sorry, we need to be objective. Let's just say there have been multiple armed confrontations between workers and company agents that involved shots getting fired and people getting killed. For example, in the Homestead Steel Works strike of 1892, at least six workers and some lesser number of Pinkerton detectives in the pay of Andrew Carnegie were slain during gun battles that broke out over an attempt to bring in strikebreakers.

Q: This isn't really what I had in mind anyway. What about premeditated murder of a specifically targeted individual, rather than some wage slave who strayed into the line of fire?

A: Well, there's the well-known case of nuclear plant worker Karen Silkwood. A union activist at a Kerr-McGee facility that made plutonium pellets for reactor fuel rods, she testified before the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974 about alleged safety problems at her plant. Several months later she was found to be dangerously contaminated with plutonium. In November Silkwood was driving to a meeting with a New York Times reporter to show him evidence of unsafe practices when her car crashed into a culvert and she was killed. Authorities said she'd fallen asleep at the wheel. Her family said there was evidence she'd been run off the road, but such allegations have never been proven.

Q: So we have no undisputed cases of a corporation conspiring to assassinate someone?

A: Undisputed, no. However, we have many instances of foreign subsidiaries of North American companies being mixed up in killings by local goons, and in each the chief question is how far up the chain of command responsibility goes. Examples:

1. As I reported in 2005, union leader Isidro Gil was shot to death in 1996 outside the main gate of a Coca-Cola plant in Colombia, allegedly by paramilitaries at the behest of the plant manager. Coke spokespeople denied that either the company's Atlanta HQ or its Columbia subsidiary had advance warning of the killing, and a federal judge threw out charges against Coke and its subsidiary on the grounds that neither had control of the local plant. The judge didn't address the claim that an agent of an independent Coke licensee had had a man killed.

2. Drummond, an Alabama-based mining company, was accused in 2002 of having hired Colombian paramilitaries to torture and kill three union leaders. In 2007 an American jury found Drummond not liable for the killings, but earlier this year in Bogota a Drummond contractor was convicted of two of the murders, and another suit is currently proceeding through U.S. courts.

3. Canadian firm Talisman Energy was sued in 2001 by the Presbyterian Church of the Sudan for its role in promoting civil war. This started with the use of paid government troops to guard Talisman's oil fields, then morphed into the military's using company roads and airstrips to launch attacks against rebels and civilians. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence showing Talisman intended to harm southern Sudanese.

4. The closest to an admission of lethal wrongdoing in recent years is the case of Wiwa et al v. Royal Dutch Petroleum et al concerning the oil company's culpability in (among other numerous human-rights abuses) the death of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by his country's military in 1995 after protesting Shell's environmental practices. In 2009, just days before the trial was scheduled to start in New York, Shell settled for $15.5 million. The plaintiffs called it a victory; Shell preferred to characterize it as a humanitarian gesture. All I know is that in the previous year Shell had racked up net gains of $26 billion, meaning $15.5 million represented the loss of five hours' profit.