Executives who sold toxic humidifier disinfectant sentenced to prison

Posted on : 2017-01-08 09:41 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Former Oxy Reckitt Benckiser CEO sentenced to seven years for selling products without sufficient safety testing

A court handed down prison time in a first trial ruling against executives at manufacturing companies that sold humidifier disinfectant products containing toxic substances that resulted in hundreds of injuries and deaths.

The judgment came six years after the disinfectant first surfaced as a public issue with a 2011 South Korean government announcement of interim investigation findings blaming it for previously unexplained cases of lung damage.

The 28th criminal division of Seoul Central District Court under judge Choi Chang-yeong sentenced former Oxy Reckitt Benckiser CEO Shin Hyun-woo, 69, to seven years in prison on Jan. 6. Shin had been arrested and indicted on charges of involuntary injury and manslaughter in the course of business operations. Former South Korea unit CEO John Lee, 49, was acquitted on the same charge.

Shin and Lee’s trial started in June 2016 on charges of causing injuries to 181 people and the deaths of 73 through the manufacture and sale of the Oxy Ssakssak New Humifidier Dangbeon, which contained the toxic chemical polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG), in Oct. 2000 without sufficient inhalation toxicity testing. They were also charged with false advertising according to the Act on Fair Indication and Advertisement for promoting the product as “harmless to the human body” and “safe for children” despite its not having been tested for safety.

Sentences of prison without and with labor were also handed down respectively on former Lotte Mart CEO Noh Byung-yong, 66, and former Homeplus grocery purchasing office chief Kim Won-hee, 62, who were delivered for trial on charges of involuntary injury and manslaughter for causing dozens of injuries and death with similar products modeled on Oxy’s.

Oh Yu-jin, 41, whose company Cefu caused 27 injuries and deaths with the manufacture and sale of products containing PGH - a chemical even more toxic than PHMG - was sentenced to seven years in prison. The Oxy, Cefu, and Homeplus corporations were given fines of 150 million won (US$125,000).

“The defendants merely had a vague belief that [the products] were safe for the human body, without sufficiently testing them to ensure their safety,” the court concluded in acknowledging responsibility for most of them.

“Some victims died after suffering extreme pain without knowing the cause, while others will have to use assistance devices for the rest of their lives,” it noted.

But the court also acquitted John Lee, Oxy’s CEO between 2005 and 2010, saying it could “not conclude that he violated his precautionary obligations based solely on the evidence presented by the prosecutors.”

The court also noted that “proper question was not conducted for foreign former executives who were in a relationship of reporting directly to John Lee.”

Last year, former Oxy CEO Gaurav Jain and others refused to comply with prosecutors’ summonses, resulting in a failure to question foreign former executives who remain overseas.

The court also acquitted Oxy and Cefu defendants on charges of fraud and habitual fraud according to the Act on the Aggravated Punishment, etc. of Specific Economic Crimes for gains earned through sales of products bearing false claims.

“For fraud to be recognized, there must be evidence that [the defendants] made financial gains by deceiving victims while aware of [the products’] harmfulness to the human body,” the court said. “The defendants merely had the vague belief that there was not any serious inhalation toxicity.”

In his final trial last month, prosecutors requested a 20-year jail sentence for Shin on charges including violation of the Aggravated Punishment Act.

The courtroom gallery on Jan. 6 included a number of victims of disinfectant use and their family members. Kim Ah-ryeon, 40, lost her two-year-old daughter five years ago to effects from using an Oxy product.

“Don’t think you’ve won,” Kim shouted at Lee. “Your conscience knows [your guilt].”

Fourteen-year-old Im Seong-jun observed the trial proceedings with the help of an oxygen tank, due to an ailment he sustained from exposure to toxic humidifier disinfectant.

“Seong-jun can never have back the body he once had,” said mother Kwon Mi-ae, 41, through tears. “Seven years is not enough to purge [Shin] of his sins.”

By Hyun So-eun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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