Landmark victory for asbestos victims

November 1, 2011

For decades, the asbestos industry has gotten away with murder. Executives working for companies which mined, manufactured or sold asbestos prospered even as their employees, customers and neighbours died because of corporate negligence.

In the UK, not one asbestos businessman has been held to account for his part in the humanitarian catastrophe which has seen thousands of people die from asbestos-related diseases.

A historic precedent was set on February 13, 2012 when an Italian Criminal Court found asbestos executives from the Eternit Group of companies guilty of the asbestos-related deaths of thousands of Italians.

Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny and Belgian Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne were sentenced to 16 years in prison and ordered to pay financial penalties in excess of €90 million for causing permanent environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety rules.

This lawsuit was pioneered by Turin Public Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, who spent 10 years researching the background to the case, the crimes and the criminals involved. Unlike asbestos litigation in countries like the UK and the U.S., the asbestos victims did not have to pay any legal fees or court costs; these were borne by the office of the public prosecutor.

As the February 13th proceedings were brought to a close, Guariniello was mobbed by well-wishers and members of the press. Clearly satisfied with the ruling, he said: “Today we have the right to dream that justice can be done and must be done.” Guariniello has already started work on Eternit 2, a case involving hundreds of Italians who have died since 2009 from asbestos-related diseases.

Commenting on the February 13th verdict Bruno Pesce, a spokesman for the Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto (Association of Asbestos Victims’ Families), said that the association believed “this judgment is a turning point in history as Justice is awarded to thousands of workers and members of the community who were killed, slaughtered, especially in Casale Monferrato and Cavagnolo, where the Italian Eternit plants were.”

Since the 1960s, trade unionists and asbestos victims from Casale Monferrato, the location of Europe’s largest asbestos-cement factory, had campaigned to raise awareness of the horrific repercussions of Eternit’s asbestos operations. The grass-roots mobilization they achieved and the sustained pressure they were able to exert on local as well as federal politicians were pivotal in insuring that justice was done.

The historical background to this trial and the context within which it was mounted are discussed in a new monograph entitled: Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial. This book can be downloaded from the website of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat:

Stephan Schmidheiny’s legal team issued a statement within hours of the judgment being handed down: “This verdict is totally incomprehensible for Stephan Schmidheiny’s lawyers, which is why they plan to appeal to the next higher authority.” Schmidheiny lawyer Astolfo Di Amato told journalists: “The sentence is dangerous because if in Italy we affirm the principle that the major shareholders of a multinational company is responsible for what happens in each peripheral plant, no one can invest in Italy any longer.” Under the Italian judicial system, there are two higher courts to which this case can be appealed.

The Turin trial, which began in December 2009 and ended on February 13, 2012, was the largest and most complex asbestos trial ever to take place in Europe. It is a criminal proceeding wrapped around a civil case which relied on information regarding Eternit’s asbestos operations in Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.

The three-judge panel confirmed the existence of a humanitarian catastrophe caused by the negligence of the defendants and companies with which they were associated.

Story by Laurie Kazan-Allan of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat