Landmark Victory for Italian Asbestos Victims
On February 13, 2012, 2,768 names were read out by Chief Judge Giuseppe Casalbore during the handing down of the verdict in, what has become known as, the Great Asbestos Trial.1 All the people named had been awarded compensation for the asbestos injuries they or their loved ones had sustained at the hands of defendants Stephan Schmidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, executives of corporations belonging to the Eternit Group of companies.
The three members of the judicial tribunal stood throughout the three hours it took to read their findings as did most of those present, including lawyers, victims, and the representatives of municipal authorities and the media in courtroom 1. It was a solemn and dignified occasion, a manifestation of the promise inscribed on the wall above the podium: La Legge E Uguale Per Tutti (The Law is Equal for All).
Italian actress Laura Curino, who had performed a play about the asbestos scandal to packed audiences in Turin the previous week, praised the care and respect with which Judge Casalbore, the President of the Court, announced the judgment. Each name, she said was given equal weight and dignity.
Courtroom 1 was full to capacity with crowds of TV reporters and film crews crammed together towards the back. On the right-hand side were rows occupied by asbestos victims and relatives of victims; next to them were representatives from more than a dozen Italian municipalities contaminated by the operations of Eternit asbestos-cement factories.
Municipal representatives from Italian towns.
The majority of victims and family members were accommodated in another packed auditorium; 23 coachloads of people from Casale Monferrato had made the journey to Turin to witness the proceedings. It is believed that there were more than 1,500 people present in four courtrooms.
Delegations from France, Belgium, Switzerland, the UK and the US were in courtroom 2 where simultaneous translations in French and English were available. This was the first time translations had been provided by the Turin criminal court; the fact that the translations were streamed live over the internet (see: http://asbestosinthedock.ning.com/) was a reflection of the enormous worldwide interest in this case.
Members of the French victims' delegation.
The proceedings had begun at 9:30 a.m. when the Judges entered the main courtroom. The initial minutes were taken up by procedural aspects and then it was announced that the reading of the verdict would start at 1:15 p.m. Within seconds of the afternoon session beginning, the wait was over. As we heard the English translator pronounce the words In the name of the Italian people, the Turin criminal court declares the defendants Schmidheiny and De Cartier guilty, we knew that the victims' 30-year campaign for justice had succeeded. Both defendants received 16-year prison sentences. Commenting on the outcome, the Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto (Association of Asbestos Victims' Families) said:
[we] believe 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. 2
The defendants were convicted of causing permanent environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety rules as a result of which thousands of Italians died from asbestos-related diseases. Sums of between €35,000 and €60,000 were awarded to individuals, with larger sums being awarded to regions, associations and Italian agencies:
Collectively it is believed that the financial penalties imposed by the criminal court amounted to around €90 million. The consensus of opinion amongst those present at the court was that neither the defendants nor the companies named alongside them as jointly and severally liable for these crimes would be posting off checks any time soon. Discussions continue regarding the options available to recover the damages.
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 shareholder of a multinational company is responsible for what happens in each peripheral plant, no one can invest in Italy any longer.
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.
The day after the landmark verdict was announced, I flew over Switzerland on the way back to London. As I gazed at the snow topped mountains from the window of the plane, I wondered whether the Swiss Alps were high enough to protect Stephan Schmidheiny's billions from the reach of the Italian authorities. Given the tenacity and skills evinced by Prosecutor Guariniello and his team, I wouldn't be too sure.
February 18, 2012
1 For background on Eternit and the trial see the IBAS monograph Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial (http://ibasecretariat.org/eternit-great-asbestos-trial-toc.htm) and the article by Laurie Kazan-Allen written immediately prior to the verdict: http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-ibas-monograph-release-eternit-great-asbestos-trial.php
2 Press Release. Declaration of Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto (Association of Asbestos Victims' Families). February 14, 2012.