When found guilty of wrongdoing, corporations may suffer not only a public relations disaster, but a major blow to their bottom line, too. Even without admitting guilt, companies may settle with authorities to make issues go away. Far from a weak slap on the wrist, the payouts can sometimes reach into the billions.
To determine the 30 largest corporate fines since 2000, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed several sources and lists, including Violation Tracker Largest Penalties, an online database from Good Jobs First, a nonprofit watchdog. We also included fines imposed by EU authorities. Ties were broken using market capitalization.
For the sake of diversity, only the largest fine of a company was included as several companies, including Bank of America and BP, have received other large fines that could have been included on the list. Also, we have only included settlements with authorities and not private settlements. It is important to note that several of these fines are being appealed. (See if any of the companies listed here are among the companies that changed their name after scandals.)
Financial companies and pharmaceuticals dominate the list. Many of the fines imposed on or settlements reached with financial firms are related to the mortgage-backed securities scandal, which led to the housing bubble and the Great Recession. Many of the financial companies were fined several times, but only the largest fine is listed here.
Several of the pharmaceutical companies listed here were fined for their role in the nation’s opioid crisis. Others were fined for improper marketing of drugs.
Yet it was an oil corporation that was hit with the largest fine. In 2015, BP agreed to pay $20.8 billion related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion at the Macondo well resulted in the deaths of 11 people and an estimated more than 3 million gallons of oil seeping into the Gulf.
Such massive penalties are not a recent phenomenon. A 1998 settlement with seven tobacco companies eclipsed the ones compiled here. The companies agreed to pay a total of $206 billion for the public health harm caused by cigarette smoking. The companies also consented to changes in the way they marketed tobacco products and to contribute to a $1.5 billion anti-smoking effort. (See how Americans felt about big business every year since 2000.)
Just recently, in mid July, four former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. were ordered to pay $95 billion in damages to the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which melted down in 2011 following a tsunami. The judge found the executives were responsible for the disaster due to negligence. The civil case was brought by Tepco shareholders. In 2019, three of the executives were found not guilty of negligence in a criminal trial. That case is being appealed.