Schmidheiny in the Dock, 2020
[Please see update at end of article]
Events scheduled to take place this month (November 2020) mark the continuation of a 50-year battle to obtain justice for Italys asbestos victims.1 On November 27th yet another trial against Swiss asbestos billionaire Stephen Schmidheiny will commence. Schmidheiny, the former owner and a director of the Swiss Eternit company, has faced charges in multiple jurisdictions over asbestos-related deaths, not only of former workers but of family members and people living in close proximity to Eternit factories throughout Italy. In proceedings due to begin shortly in the Novara Court of Assizes in northwest Italy, Schmidheiny has been accused of 392 cases of murder of workers from the companys asbestos-cement factory in Casale Monferrato and local people who died of diseases caused by environmental exposures. Although the trial could, once again, be delayed because of the pandemic, at the time of writing the case is expected to proceed.
The fight by Italian victims and legal practitioners to hold Schmidheiny to account for the deaths caused by Eternits operations in Italy has been long-standing and high-profile. Initially, it was conducted at a grassroots level by Italian trade unions, victims groups and non-governmental organizations; latterly, public prosecutors have launched legal actions against the defendant charging him, in various jurisdictions and at different times, with murder, manslaughter,2 aggravated culpable homicide,3 voluntary homicide,4 causing permanent environmental damage and failing to comply with safety rules.5 Currently, Schmidheinys legal team is appealing a May 2019 verdict sentencing him to four years in prison for the aggravated manslaughter of Giulio Testore, an Eternit worker from Cavagnolo, who died in 2018 from asbestosis. In his ruling, Judge Cristiano Trevisan was categorical about Schmidheinys responsibility for allowing asbestos exposures to persist in four of the companys factories. The Judge ruled that the defendant had shown disregard for human beings and the environment, had prioritized profit over health and had failed in his duty to protect workers. Schmidheiny had, said the Judge, made a conscious decision to exploit the toxic material [asbestos] for as long as possible before it was banned
Although Schmidheiny received prison sentences of 16 and 18 years respectively in 2012 and 2013, these were overturned on a technicality by a ruling of the Court of Cassation, Italys Supreme Court, in 2014.6 Asbestos claimants and the families of those who have died remain optimistic, however, that Stephan Schmidheiny will finally be held to account for the damage done and heartache caused to so many Italian families.
November 12, 2020
Update: November 16, 2020
On November 13, 2020, Judge Gianfranco Pezone – President of the Court of Assizes – announced that the Novara trial is being rescheduled from its original date of November 27, 2020 until June 6, 2021 due to the pandemic and the large number of parties interested in attending the proceedings. See: Slitta all’estate il processo per i morti d’amianto [The trial for asbestos deaths is postponed to summer].
1 Ed. Allen, D. & Kazan-Allen, L. Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial. 2012.
Vogel, L. A Trial with Far-Reaching Implications. 2012.
2 Carrer, C. Stephan Schmidheiny incurante delluomo e dellambiente [Stephan Schmidheiny heedless of man and the environment]. September 24, 2020.
3 Carrer, C. Stephan Schmidheiny merita la pena massima [Stephan Schmidheiny deserves the maximum penalty].
4 Massa, C. Stephan Schmidheiny sotto accusa di omicidio volontario [Stephan Schmidheiny on charges of voluntary murder].
April 16, 2018.
5 Lawsuit against Eternit (re asbestos exposure in Italy). March 3, 2015.
6 Kazan-Allen, L. Italys Hope and Glory. August 3, 2016.