Jury convicts Swiss executives for asbestos-related deaths
Two executives of a Swiss company that manufactured asbestos-laced construction materials were convicted Monday of causing the deaths of more than 2,000 people.
In one of Europe’s largest environmental cases ever, a jury in Turin, Italy, sentenced Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, former owner of Eternit, and Belgian baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, a major shareholder, to 16 years in prison on charges of involuntary manslaughter.
The court also ordered Schmidheiny and de Cartier de Marchienne to pay 145 million euros ($194 million) to workers and local residents of four Italian towns where Enternit operated before the conglomerate went bankrupt in 1986, according to Reuters.
The two executives were found guilty of purposely failing to install measures to prevent health damage from asbestos, which was banned in Italy in 1992. The verdict in the trial, which began in 2009, is the culmination of a five-year investigation into Enternit’s culpability in asbestos injuries to Italian workers.
According to Italian news reports, the presiding judge needed three hours to read out the verdict, including the names of 3,000 workers from the Italian plants, the deceased and their family members.
Italian Health Minister Renato Balduzzi hailed the verdict as “truly historic.”
“It’s a great day, but that doesn’t mean the battle against asbestos is over,” he told Sky TG24 TV, noting that asbestos remains a worldwide problem.
At least 55 countries, including every member nation of the European Union, have banned asbestos, which can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work, and that more than 100,000 die each year of asbestos-related disease.
Although asbestos mining in the U.S. ended in 2002, American industry still uses more than 1,000 tons of imported asbestos each year.
Advocates for victims of asbestos-related disease applauded Monday’s verdict. Linda Reinstein, president and CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said in a statement that the verdict was “a watershed moment” for those working to ban asbestos around the world.
“The Enternit trial was not just a landmark case for the workers or the people of Italy, but rather represents an opportunity to redefine justice around the world,” Reinstein said. “For the first time ever, those who manufacturer and produce asbestos were successfully charged with criminal offenses.”
Lawyers for Schmidheiny and de Cartier de Marchienne, who were tried in absentia, said their clients were innocent and plan to appeal. Cesare Zaccone, de Cartier de Marchienne's lawyer, issued a statement that said his client was not liable for safety measures at the plants.