Postscript to the Great Asbestos Trial
(Revised January 14, 2015)
On February 13, 2012, Stephan Schmidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne were found guilty for their part in the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Eternit's asbestos operations in Italy. The defendants in this criminal case were convicted of causing wilful permanent environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety rules as a result of which thousands of Italians died from asbestos-related diseases.1 For their crimes, Schmidheiny and Marchienne were sentenced by the Turin Court to 16 years in prison and ordered to pay 6,392 injured parties compensation estimated at more than €5 million.2
In court to hear the long awaited judgment were 1,500+ people from Casale Monferrato, the town at the centre of Eternit's Italian operations. Twenty-three coachloads of asbestos victims, family members and community activists had set off before dawn from Casale to witness the resolution of this historic case. They were joined in the court by hundreds of representatives of asbestos victims' groups from France, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, the UK, Brazil and the US. In recognition of the enormous international interest in this case, for the first time ever the provision of simultaneous translation into English and French was sanctioned by the authorities of the Turin Court; these translations were streamed live over the internet.
The proceedings began at 9:30 a.m. when the Judges entered courtroom 1. 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. 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.
Turin Public Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, who pioneered this landmark case, told journalists surrounding him in the aftermath of the verdict: 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.
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.
With modern technology the news spread worldwide in minutes. Coverage in Italy was massive and national newspapers ran front pages stories about the verdict with TV reports on many channels. In Canada, speculation was rife about the implications of this trail for asbestos propagandists and executives in Quebec. In France, attempts to replicate the Turin process are being made3 but success is yet to be achieved, while in Brazil, another country which has experienced massive damage at the hands of Eternit, prosecutors regard the 700+-page Italian verdict as a precedent to be used in all ongoing actions in the country.
On June 28, 2012 Public Prosecutor Guariniello announced that he had appealed the judgment. Considering the crimes committed, 16 years in jail was an insufficient punishment. Guariniello was calling for the sentences to be increased to 20 years for both defendants. The public prosecutor's office, he added, was now investigating the deaths of 117 Italians who worked in the Swiss and German Eternit plants as well as the asbestos deaths of Italians in Brazil and France who were exposed to Eternit asbestos. A fortnight later (July 16), it was reported that Schmidheiny's legal team had submitted a 500-page appeal to the Turin Court, which looked to overturn the verdict on grounds of constitutionality, jurisdiction and statute of limitations.
Attempts by the defendants to quash the verdict suffered a serious setback on March 4, 2013 when the President of the Turin Court of Appeal not only validated the first instance guilty ruling but also rejected the defendants' ploy to halt the ongoing proceedings. The appeal proceedings had nearly reached completion when on May 21, 2013 the death of 91-year old defendant Louis de Cartier de Marchienne was reported. With his demise, the criminal case against him and Etex, the company of which he was a director, was vacated.
On June 3, 2013 the Appeal Court not only upheld the first instance verdict but upped Schmidheiny's prison sentence from 16 to 18 years.4 The proceedings were closely watched by Italian asbestos victims and campaigners who were joined in the Turin court by colleagues from France, Belgium and Switzerland, countries where Eternit asbestos operations also caused a massive loss of life. Just after 9 a.m. expert witness Pietro Clerici was asked by the Court to authenticate the death certificate of Louis de Cartier de Marchienne. When this had been done, lawyers for the deceased and for Etex, the company of which he had been a director, asked for the cases against their clients to be struck off. Public Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello agreed that the crimes against de Cartier no longer stood.
The Court adjourned until 3:28 p.m. when the Judges returned to the courtroom and announced that Schmidheiney's prison sentence had been increased by two years; the Public Prosecutor had wanted it upped by four years.2 An observer in the Court informed us that damages were awarded for the asbestos environmental pollution in Naples and Rubiera, localities which had been excluded from the first instance judgment. The Court raised the level of compensation due to some organizations and municipalities including the town of Casale Monferrato; its first instance damages of €25 million were raised to €31m. The Appeal Court held Stephan Schmidheiny liable for damages to 2,889 victims who had been exposed to Eternit's asbestos from June 1976 until 1986. Because the defendants had been found jointly and severally liable, Schmidheiny was sentenced to pay all the court costs. After the verdict had been read, Schmidheiny's lawyer said No one will invest in Italy now. The response of Public Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello was I hope people like that will not. The death of Cartier de Marchienne means that plaintiffs who had been suing him or Etex, the company which he was associated with, will now have to mount civil proceedings in Belgium to obtain damages.
The 2012 verdict of the Turin Court and the 2013 judgment of the Appeal Court were great victories not only for the people of Casale Monferrato and other Italian towns where people's lives counted for nothing in Eternit's pursuit for profits, but also for asbestos victims elsewhere. These judgments give us hope that in every jurisdiction around the world asbestos profiteers can be held to account for the damage they have done.5
February 18, 2014
Update November 20, 2014
On November 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of Italy (the Court of Cassation) issued the final Italian verdict in the criminal case against Stephen Schmidheiny. In a surprise and devastating decision for the plaintiffs, the Court overturned the previous convictions on the grounds that the charges of causing permanent environmental disaster had been statute barred. Asbestos victims, grieving relatives and campaigners were outraged at this travesty of justice as is clear from a press release issued which pledged that the fight for justice would continue. (see: Press release of International Forum of Asbestos Victims’ Groups November 19, 2014)
Reacting to the judgment, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for a change in the law saying: “It’s not possible that in some instances there are rules that, with time, leapfrog the demands of justice – because there are no time limits on pain and grief.”
1 Kazan-Allen L. Landmark Victory for Italian Asbestos Victims. February 18, 2012.
Kazan-Allen L. Great Asbestos Trial: Post-Verdict Developments. July 12, 2012.
2 Criminal courts in Italy can only award interim payments; the civil courts quantify the full amount of compensation. Although only some of the victims were awarded interim payments in 2012, all were granted the right to instigate civil proceedings.
3 As a result of the French Supreme Court overturning a Court of Appeal decision, criminal proceedings against executives and/or owners of the asbestos companies Eternit France and Ferodo can now be progressed. According to a secret memo leaked in January 2014 by Le Figaro, a criminal trial could begin in early 2015.
It is believed that charges of manslaughter will also be brought against members of the public relations body The Permanent Committee on Asbestos.
4 Billionaire's jail term for asbestos deaths upped to 18 yrs. June 3, 2013.
5 For more information on the background to this ground-breaking legal action, see: Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial. IBAS, 2012.