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The responsible shareholder: a case study

Warren, Richard C. (2002) The responsible shareholder: a case study. Business ethics: a European review, 11 (1). pp. 14-24. ISSN 0962-8770

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Abstract

Shareholders are sometimes considered to be, in moral terms, the owners of a company, they are after all the carriers of the residual liabilities and bear a higher proportion of the financial risk. However, in company law, the shareholders’ responsibility is limited, and in financial terms shareholders are only liable up to the fully paid value of the share certificate. Moreover, when the shares are sold, the responsibility and risk are transferred completely to the new bearer of the shares. Whether this gap in moral and legal perceptions can be judged to be satisfactory in business ethics terms is a moot point and will be partly explored in this case study which seeks to analyse the shareholder’s responsibility towards a firm in which they own shares. The case study company chosen as a vehicle to explore these issues is that of Turner & Newall; a company that subjected its employees, communities and customers to a major health hazard – asbestosis. This paper will use the Turner & Newall archive materials to illustrate the moral hazards that can arise for shareholders. In particular it will examine the ethical responsibilities of shareholders towards those stakeholders who were exposed to the dangers of asbestos. This case is a significant test of the veracity of the legal system of company control, and exposes the ineffectiveness of that system in accountability terms. The case study also deals with specific issues that arose in the asbestos crisis, as well as with more general issues in our present system of corporate governance and shareholder responsibilities.

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