MAC: Mines and Communities

Appeals court sharpens Schmidheiny sentence

Published by MAC on 2013-06-06
Source: AFP, Swiss Broadcasting Corporation

Sentence upped for Swiss billionaire in asbestos trial


4 June 2013

TURIN, Italy - An Italian appeals court on Monday upheld a conviction for Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny for causing the death of 3000 people in an asbestos case that campaigners say sets a key precedent for legal action around the world.

The court increased Stephan Schmidheiny's prison sentence in absentia to 18 years from 16 years when he was first convicted last year and ordered him to pay tens of millions of euros (dollars) to local authorities and victims' families.

Campaigners immediately hailed the verdict as an important landmark in the fight against asbestos, which is now banned by the European Union but is still widely used in the developing world.

Italy's National Asbestos Observatory said the sentence "encourages the battle of victims and relatives and honest people for a better world without asbestos and without a thirst for profit".

Bruno Pesce, head of the Association of Families of Asbestos Victims, who was present at the hearing, said the sentence was "a precedent".

Speaking to news channel Sky Tg 24, another campaigner Nicola Pondrano, said the company's management had been "not just irresponsible but really criminal because they did not give workers basic information like the fact that asbestos is cancerogenic".

Eternit had caused "a real massacre" in the towns in which it had plants, Pondrano said.

He said he hoped the billionaire would begin paying out compensation "starting tomorrow" and argued that the Italian state could begin contributing if this was not possible.

Schmidheiny's defence team said it would appeal the ruling in Italy's highest court, with lawyer Astolfo Di Amato saying he was outraged by a verdict likely to put others off investing in Italy.

The tycoon is the former owner of Italian company Eternit, which made construction material using asbestos in the 1970s and 1980s, and he was taken to court by a group of former employees.

Referred to by Forbes magazine as the "Bill Gates of Switzerland" for his philanthropy, Schmidheiny was found by the appeals court to have caused "a permanent health and environment catastrophe".

Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello said the verdict gave "everyone in Italy and the whole world the right to dream that justice can and must be done."

The case against Belgian baron Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, a major Eternit shareholder who was also being tried in absentia, was dropped because he died last month at the age of 92.

The town of Casale Monferrato, one of the worst hit by asbestos-related cases, was awarded 30.9 million euros in damages while the Piedmont region, where the largest Eternit factory was located, was awarded 20 million euros.

Relatives of victims had gathered at the court waving yellow placards reading "Justice for Eternit Massacre", and some burst into tears as the verdict was read out.

The mayor of Casale Monferrato, Giorgio Demezzi, said he was "satisfied with the compensation" which he said would go towards cleaning up contaminated sites in the town.

Lawyers for Schmidheiny had argued that he did not have a direct responsibility in the management of Eternit Italy.

Eternit went bankrupt six years before asbestos was banned in Italy in 1992.

The first trial began in 2009 after a five-year investigation and is the biggest of its kind against a multinational for asbestos-related deaths.

Asbestos, which was banned in Europe in 2005, but is still widely used in the developing world, had been used mainly as building insulation for its sound absorption and resistance to fire, heat and electrical damage.

The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause lung inflammation and cancer, and symptoms can take up to 20 years to manifest after exposure.

Appeals court sharpens Schmidheiny sentence

Swiss Broadcasting Corporation

3 June 2013

An Italian appeals court has handed down a longer prison sentence to Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny for his role in factory deaths caused by asbestos exposure. He has indicated plans to take the decision to Italy's highest court.

The appeals court in Turin convicted Schmidheiny, aged 65, to 18 years in prison. The court also dropped charges against his business partner Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier because the Belgian baron died May 21 at the age of 92.

Schmidheiny was not present in the courtroom when Monday's sentence was read, and his Zurich-based spokesperson said at a press conference that he intends to appeal the decision and take it to Italy's top court in Rome.

The Swiss billionaire and de Cartier used to be 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 February 2012, the court in Turin had sentenced Schmidheiny and de Cartier to 16 years in prison and fined them millions of euros in punitive damages for involuntary manslaughter. The courts accused the managers of knowing about the dangers of asbestos but not taking the necessary measures to protect those who were either employed by Eternit or living in the vicinity of the factories.

The men appealed the original court decision, saying that the ruling was incomprehensible. They had argued that they were not directly responsible for the management of Eternit Italy, which went bankrupt in 1986, six years before asbestos was banned.

Although it is known today that exposure to asbestos causes cancer, victims and their families have faced hurdles in bringing proceedings against companies or their former owners because it can take as long as 40 years for the disease to develop.

Dying from asbestos... and having to prove it Under Swiss law, asbestos must be removed from buildings

The number of cases of illness due to asbestos is on the rise, with hundreds of deaths expected in Switzerland in the next years. [...] National

Further appeals likely

The Swiss Federal Court threw out charges of manslaughter, murder and bodily harm against the former Eternit owners in 2008, arguing that the statute of limitations of ten years had passed.

The Italian court, however, last year convicted the businessmen and sentenced them to pay significant punitive damages to towns in the Piedmont region as well as to Italy's national accident insurer, other organisations and the victims themselves.

Hundreds of people gathered in Turin on Monday for the appeals court verdict, many of them from Casale Monferrato, a village in the Piedmont where one of the affected factories was located.

While the Turin appeals court verdict ends another chapter in finding those responsible for the asbestos deaths, it is unlikely to end the Eternit legal saga as Schmidheiny is expected to further appeal Monday's decision.

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