The case of the Therac-25 is an sterling example of corporate ethics failing under the profit motive and governmental oversight failing against the attempt to balance safety and free-market policies. The evidence indicates that the producer of the Therac-25, AECL, should have known there was a problem before four people were overdosed (Computing Cases.4, n.d.); why they didn't act sooner may be a mystery or we may just prefer not to so bluntly state: profit motive. It is also fairly apparent that several government entities might have had some idea there was a problem (Ibid.) but reacted slowly and inefficiently.
Corporatism is not purely an American phenomenon (Hogan, 1990). However the United States' disregard for social welfare is noteworthy (Quadagno, 1988) and perhaps this is apropos the case history. For, while AECL is a Canadian Corporation, the majority of the Therac-25 accidents occurred in the US with that attendant culture. It is fairly clear that at the time of these accidents the FDA lacked the oversight to deal decisively with the chain of events before it was too late for six victims. I would venture that it might not be entirely coincidental that this chain of events was contemporary with Ronald Reagan's government. It does seem clear that the FDA could have saved lives if they'd had the requisite congressional mandate. “The counter-argument is that congress should allow the market to work out these issues. But in this instance, at least, the market was too slow to save the individuals who were killed or injured. “ (Computing Cases.2, n.d.).
Litigation is another complex ethical issue. To what extent does the rule of law benefit from civil suits? It seems that some wrongdoers must deserve punitive action, and victims deserve recompense. But at what point does litigation reach diminishing returns? That is to say, when does innovation suffer and when does being a victim become a career path? There certainly are legal professionals who are entirely dependent on this 'industry'. It is a fine line between trying to protect and litigation 'to "sue everyone with deep pockets."' (Computing Cases.1, n.d.). That corporations ignore this or risk analyze it so often incorrectly is a fascinating subject in and of itself. In this case Levelson and Turner (1993) note that failure is “becoming more common as companies decide that hardware interlocks and backups are not worth the expense”. So that up-front expense was neglected and the lawsuit endured.
Computing Cases (n.d.) also identify: “simple programming errors”, “inadequate safety engineering”, “poor human computer interaction design”, “a lax culture of safety in the manufacturing organization” and “inadequate reporting structure at the company level and as required by the U.S. government” as contributing factors in the case of the Therac-25. Thankfully some progress has been made on all fronts. Unfortunately the case of Scott Jerome-Parks attests that we aren't out of the woods yet, as “new avenues for error - through software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures, or inadequate staffing and training” (New York Times, 2010) may yet continue.
Computing Cases.1 (n.d.) Linear Accelerator Treatment Facilities [Online]. Available from: http://www.computingcases.org/case_materials/therac/supporting_docs/therac_case_narr/Hospital.html (Accessed 18 April, 2010)
Computing Cases.2, (n.d.) System Safety [Online]. Available from: http://www.computingcases.org/case_materials/therac/analysis/Safety.html (Accessed 18 April, 2010)
Computing Cases.3, (n.d.) Teaching Introduction [Online]. Available from:http://www.computingcases.org/case_materials/therac/teaching_intro/Teaching_Intro.html (Accessed 17 April, 2010)
Computing Cases.4, (n.d.) Therac-25 Timeline [Online]. Available from: http://www.computingcases.org/case_materials/therac/supporting_docs/therac_resources/Timeline.html(Accessed 17 April, 2010)
Hogan, M.J. (1990) 'Corporatism', Journal of American History Vol: 77 Issue: 1 Pp153-160 [Online]. Available from: http://bl7ja6yx3q.search.serialssolutions.com/log?L=BL7JA6YX3Q&D=JAS&J=THEJOUOFAM&U=https%3A%2F%2Flogin.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk%2Flogin%3Furl%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Flinks.jstor.org%2Fsici%3Fsici%3D0021-8723%25281990%252977%253A1%253C153%253AC%253E2.0.CO%253B2-X%26origin%3Dserialsolutions (Accessed: 17 April, 2010)
Levelson, N.G. and Turner, C.S. (1993) An Investigation of the Therac-25 accidents' Computer. Vo: 26 Issue: 7 [Online] Available from: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=274940 (Accessed: 17 April, 2010)
The New York Times (2010) Radiation is a lifesaving tool the sometimes turns deadly [Online] Available from: http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2010/01/24/radiation_is_a_lifesaving_tool_that_sometimes_turns_deadly/ (Accessed: 17 April, 2010)
Quadagno, J.S. (1988) The Transformation of Old Age Security – Class and Politics in the American Welfare State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press