The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (Act) does not make criminal liability turn on awareness of some wrongdoing or conscious fraud. The duty imposed by Congress on responsible corporate agents is one that requires the highest standard of foresight and vigilance, but the Act, in its criminal aspect, does not require that which is objectively impossible. The theory upon which responsible corporate agents are held criminally accountable for causing violations of the Act permits a claim that a defendant was powerless to prevent or correct the violation to be raised defensively at a trial on the merits. If such a claim is made, the defendant has the burden of coming forward with evidence, but this does not alter the Government's ultimate burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant's guilt, including his power, in light of the duty imposed by the Act, to prevent or correct the prohibited condition.
Acme Markets, Inc., is a national retail food chain with approximately 36,000 employees, 874 retail outlets, 12 general warehouses, and four special warehouses. Its headquarters, including the office of the president, respondent Park, who is chief executive officer of the corporation, are located in Philadelphia, Pa. In a five-count information filed in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, the Government charged Acme and respondent with violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Each count of the information alleged that the defendants received food that had been shipped in interstate commerce and that, while the food was being held for sale in Acme's Baltimore warehouse following shipment in interstate commerce, they caused it to be held in a building accessible to rodents and to be exposed to contamination by rodents. These acts were alleged to have resulted in the food's being adulterated in violation of the Act. The chain pleaded guilty. The corporate officer pleaded not guilty. After a jury trial, the corporate officer was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to pay fines. The appellate court reversed the corporate officer's convictions because it found the jury instructions erroneous. The court granted the Government's petition for certiorari review.
Can the manager of a corporation be prosecuted?
The court held that the corporate officer had been properly prosecuted and convicted under the FDCA for the introduction of adulterated articles into interstate commerce. The court held that the Act imposes upon persons exercising authority and supervisory responsibility reposed in them by a business organization not only a positive duty to seek out and remedy violations but also, and primarily, a duty to implement measures that will insure that violations will not occur. The Court held that the Act punishes "neglect where the law requires care, or inaction where it imposes a duty." The Court also noted that the instructions to the jury were not misleading and contained an adequate statement of the law. There was no basis to conclude that the failure of the court to give specific instructions sua sponte was plain error or a defect affecting the corporate officer's substantial rights