Industrialist’s jail term for asbestos deaths increased

A Swiss industrialist has been given an 18 year prison sentence for his part in the deaths of workers from asbestos in Italy. On 3 June 2013, the Court of Turin ruled that Stephan Schmidheiny, an executive with asbestos manufacturer Eternit Spa, must also pay damages of €88 million. The appeal court ruling increases a previous jail sentence by two years. It also ordered that compensation should be paid to workers at two plants not included in the original sentence.

Background

On 13 February 2012, the Court of Turin handed out prison sentences to two executives from the asbestos manufacturer Eternit SpA. They were Belgian Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, aged 91, and Swiss businessman Stephan Schmidheiny, aged 65, each given 16 year prison terms (IT1202069I) for causing an environmental disaster through their negligence and of knowingly failing to introduce adequate health and safety measures. The trial was the biggest health and safety case ever heard in a European court.

The Swiss billionaire and Mr de Cartier de Marchienne had been the majority shareholders in Eternit Genova, a firm that owned four asbestos factories in Italy. They were held responsible for the deaths of almost 3,000 people because they had allowed toxic asbestos dust from the production of roofing materials and pipes to circulate on the factory floor.

In Italy, sentences are only considered final after two levels of appeals are exhausted. Exactly one year after the original court case ended, a second trial started on 13 February 2013 before Turin’s appeal court, the first in the appeal process. It delivered its judgement (in Italian) on 3 June 2013. Mr De Cartier de Marchienne died during the hearing, on 21 May 2013, and the case against him was formally dropped. However, Mr Schmidheiny’s sentence was lengthened to 18 years in prison for causing a permanent environmental disaster with criminal intent.

The Swiss magnate intends to take the case to a higher appeal court, and this third hearing should lead to a definitive sentence.

Health and safety conviction quashed

The appeals court sat to review the crimes for which Mr Schmidheiny was considered responsible. The most important change it made to the decisions of the first court is that Mr Schmidheiny is now no longer considered guilty of not having taken any health and safety measures to protect workers.

One of the consequences of this decision is that the National Institute for Industrial Accident Insurance, INAIL, and the National Institute of Social Security, INPS, will not be paid damages. It means INAIL will not be able to claim around €2 million it had been awarded at the earlier trial.

Despite this decision, Mr Schmidheiny’s sentence was extended from 16 to 18 years in jail. This is perhaps because the second sentence also extends Mr Schmidheiny’s responsibility for causing an environmental disaster at two further Eternit plants, in Bagnoli, Naples and Rubiera, Reggio Emilia. Claims from these two plants had been excluded from the first trial.

Damages will not be paid to the complainants either as their original case was against the now deceased Baron de Cartier de Marchienne.

The appeal court also ruled that those who had worked in the Eternit plants before June 1966 could not claim damages from the accused because crimes committed there before that date could not be attributed to them.

The damages awarded as a result of the second sentence total €88 million. The damages awarded in the first sentence for the Regions, Provinces, Local Municipalities and trade unions were confirmed and some were raised. The Local Municipality of Casale Monferrato – where the biggest Eternit plant is located – is still seriously contaminated and suffers an average of 50 asbestos-related deaths per year. This municipality will be paid €30.9 million in damages, €5.9 million more than in the first ruling.

The territorial trade union organisations of the General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL), the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL) and the Union of Italian Workers (UIL), who all sued for damages, will receive €100,000 each. Individual claimants will each receive €30,000.

International relevance

When the sentence of the second trial was read, there were delegations present from France, Belgium and Switzerland. The case against Eternit SpA is considered an important point of reference for all countries interested in more exhaustive and stringent investigations into similar matters.

On 4 June 2013, the day after delivery of the second sentence, a meeting took place involving representatives of the associations and organisations concerned. The meeting was organised by the Italian Association of Asbestos Victims (AFEVA). Representatives of some foreign associations also participated, including the National Association of Asbestos Victims (ANDEVA) from France, the Belgian Association of Asbestos Victims (ABEVA), the Spanish Federation of Associations of Asbestos Victims and Communities (FEDAVICA), and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (CSA) from Latin America.

Union reaction

Fabrizio Solari, Confederal Secretary of CGIL, said he was satisfied with the sentence, but was unhappy that INAIL had not been awarded the damages that had been established in the first trial. He said:

That money could have been used by the institute to promote actions in favour of workers exposed to asbestos and in favour of research.

Giovanna Ventura, Regional Secretary of CISL Piemonte, said the sentence:

confirms the responsibility of the administrators of the Swiss multinational company and the damage done to the health and safety of workers and citizens.

He added that the sentence:

must remain a fundamental example for all, guaranteeing the safety of workers and respect for the environment.

Paolo Carcassi, Confederal Secretary of UIL, said the sentence from the second trial:

calls on all the national and territorial institutions to work more quickly and efficiently in order to guarantee that similar tragedies never happen again.

Commentary

The production of asbestos in Italy rose to more than 160 thousand tons per year between 1976 and 1980. Until 1987, production levels never dropped below 100,000 tons per year. Thanks to low production costs and high availability, asbestos was used in many industrial applications. This was despite the fact that, as far back as the mid-1960s, studies showed the health risks to those exposed to asbestos fibres.

At the time when production levels of asbestos in Italy were at their highest, Norway and Sweden rapidly cut the importation of asbestos. Imports began to fall in 1975 and were eliminated completely by 1980. Finland began to restrict asbestos imports as early as 1970, while in the UK, asbestos importation was outlawed in the mid-1980s.

France, however, took a similar position to Italy over asbestos and continued to extract and produce it. In Italy, measures to limit exposure to asbestos fibres started to be introduced in the mid-1970s. Only in 1992 was the importation, production and sale of asbestos banned.

Italy was the second highest asbestos producer in Europe behind the former Soviet Union. This could possibly explain why attempts to prevent potential national environmental disasters caused by the substance took so much longer in Italy compared to other European countries.

The extraction, transport and processing of asbestos has seriously polluted vast areas of Italy and caused the deaths of thousands of workers and citizens. Every year, more than 2,000 new cases of asbestos-related diseases are reported to the INAIL. More than 1,000 of these are potentially life-threatening tumours, according to the INAIL Annual Report of 2011 (in Italian).

In three-quarters of the world, asbestos is still extracted, processed and sold. This seriously affects the health of workers and the general population, with the consequences often only coming to light 20–40 years later. The incubation period for lethal asbestos-related diseases is very long.

The Eternit trial, the first of its type in the world, could become a watershed for millions of workers worldwide. It could also act as a warning against unethical economic development.

Vilma Rinolfi, Cesos

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