Jailing Asbestos Executives
For decades, asbestos stakeholders have gotten away with murder. Although an Italian court sentenced executives from the Eternit Asbestos Group to prison in 2005 for intentional homicide at an asbestos-cement factory in Contrada Targia between 1974 and 1986, the guilty parties, who were foreign nationals, had already left the country.1 Leo Mittelholzer, head of the Sicilian factory from 1984-1986, received a sentence of two years and four months. At the time the judgement was issued, he had relocated to Thailand and was Managing Director of Siam City Cement PLC, a subsidiary of a Swiss multinational cement company.2
In the Autumn of 2006, a French court ruled that the tire giant Michelin was guilty of gross corporate negligence for exposing insulators in the 1960s and 1970s to hazardous levels of asbestos; the court's finding of faute inexcusable more than doubled the size of the compensation awards for the asbestos-related cancers contracted by four former Michelin employees.3 At about the same time, another French criminal court convicted the Alstom Power Boiler Company and its former director Bernard Gomez of negligently exposing the workforce at the Lys-les-Lannoy factory to asbestos over a three year period commencing in 1998. The executive received a fine of €3,000 (US$3,857) and a nine month suspended sentence.4 On March 8, 2008, the maximum fine of €75,000 imposed upon the company was upheld by the Court of Appeal of Douai. The fine imposed upon Gomez was also upheld but his suspended sentence was reduced from nine to three months. This is the first time that a French company has been ordered to compensate all its asbestos-exposed workers, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms of asbestos-related disease; the company was instructed to pay each of the 150 workers the sum of €10,000 (US$15,572).5
A few days after the verdict against Alstom was upheld, another French tribunal judged that the Trigano Company and its Managing Director were guilty of involuntary wounding for hazardous exposures which took place at the company's premises with the MD receiving a three month suspended jail sentence.6 Trigano was fined €30,000 and ordered to pay each of the exposed workers the sum of €1,000.
As of yet, no asbestos executives have actually served time in prison for their complicity in the asbestos-related deaths of their workers. In the UK, far from penalizing our former asbestos executives, we give them the highest of national honors for their contribution to the national economy. Things may be changing. With the bankruptcy of many asbestos companies and asbestos bans in 40+ countries, the political clout and availability of financial resources needed to shield corporate officers are likely to diminish. In Italy after several years of investigation, Turin-based Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello is poised to bring a class action suit against a leading asbestos multinational for its role in 2,900 asbestos-related deaths caused by Eternit's operations in Italy and Switzerland. The trial of the class action is due to commence in Spring/Summer 2008.
In the U.S., the case against W. R. Grace for its contamination of the people and environment of Libby, Montana, trundles on. On March 12, 2008, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer reported that Grace will make a record-breaking contribution of $250 million towards the costs incurred by the federal government for the Libby clean-up, half of the estimated final bill.7 Meanwhile, the criminal case against seven former and current Grace officials for alleged conspiracy, knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud for endangering the people of Libby by concealing well-documented hazards of the tremolite asbestos continues. The company has succeeded in delaying proceedings since 2006 and the Justice Department says that the court hearing has not yet been rescheduled. Reporter Andrew Schneider writes:
Grace has been given until April 14 to submit an appeal to the Supreme Court if it wants to challenge an appellate court's decision restoring key charges against the worldwide chemical company, its executives and former mine managers.
One can but hope that the developments cited above in Europe and North America are harbingers of things to come and that individuals who administered asbestos operations will be held to account for their criminal behavior.
March 17, 2008
2 As of February 28, 2007, Mittelholzer was the Chief Executive Officer of Siam City Cement PLC.
5 Landmark Asbestos Ruling Upheld in France
6 Press Release: Syndicate CGT Trigano VDL Tournon
7 Schneider A. W. R. Grace to Pay Record Superfund Fine. March 12, 2008.