Swiss Blood Money: Too Little to Stem the Tide
For years, Swiss asbestos victims have remained marginalized by a state compensation scheme (SUVA) and legal system which protect negligent corporations from the glare of public approbation. As the Swiss legal system makes personal injury litigation inordinately complex and prohibitively expensive, asbestos victims have had little choice but to accept the small awards meted out by SUVA for their injuries; large numbers of asbestos injured remain ineligible for state compensation and few claimants have succeeded in obtaining compensation through the Swiss courts.
The glaring injustice of the plight of Switzerland's asbestos victims has, until recently, remained an inconvenient secret which was kept locked away to protect the good name and reputation of one of the country's most powerful industrial families: the Schmidheinys. In 1985, the Swiss Eternit Group, owned by Stephan Schmidheiny, was the world's second largest seller of asbestos-cement products with operations in 32 countries and annual sales of $2 billion. In the mid-1980s, Stephan Schmidheiny's financial worth was estimated at US$2 billion; by 2002, it had risen to US$4 billion. Although Stephan Schmidheiny promotes himself as someone who integrates corporate social responsibility and philanthropy in his business strategy, he and his family continued to ignore the claims of thousands of Eternit's asbestos victims both in Switzerland and abroad.
The family's control of the national asbestos agenda seems to be slipping, however, and on September 28, 2006, a 55 minute documentary was broadcast on Swiss TV entitled: Mourir d'Amiante, en Silence (Dying of Asbestos in Silence).1 The film told the story of people from Payerne, Switzerland whose lives have been stolen by their former employer: Eternit. The people interviewed had never been warned of the hazards of working in the Eternit asbestos-cement factory and have suffered dire consequences as a result of their exposure to Eternit asbestos. One week after the program had been broadcast, Eternit announced that it was setting up a US$1 million fund to help former employees from Payerne and Niederurnen who are suffering from asbestos-related diseases.2 Whilst welcoming this acknowledgement of the company's role in the causation of these diseases, a Swiss Asbestos Victims' group, CAOVA, was sceptical at the small sum being put into the pot, with one legal adviser saying this will never be sufficient to meet all the compensation claims. Lawyer Massimo Aliotta said:
In the last 50 years, many thousands of people have worked at Niederurnen and Payerne, 2,500 from the South of Italy alone. In theory, thousands of people would be able to seek help from the foundation This foundation has been set up at a time when increasing numbers of people are taking legal proceedings against the Eternit management. I would not describe it as a counterattack but it is certainly a reaction to the present state of affairs.3
Swiss asbestos victims can take heart from legal actions against asbestos defendants which are being vigorously pursued in Italy and in France. In 2005, an Italian tribunal in Sicily found eight former Eternit executives guilty of intentional homicide for health and safety offences which took place in an asbestos-cement factory in Contrada Targia between 1974 and 1986.4 For more than two years, Turin-based prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello has been investigating Eternit's complicity in causing asbestos injuries to other Italian workers; by the end of 2006, his enquiry into 2,000 claims for damages should be completed. On September 30, 2006, thousands of protestors mounted a silent demonstration in the streets of Paris to draw attention to the successful prosecution of French company Alstom Power Boilers by asbestos claimants; the company was ordered to pay substantial compensation for knowingly exposing the workers to asbestos and causing at least 10 deaths. Four asbestos lawsuits against the tire company Michelin are currently being tried by a court in Clermont-Ferrand. The demonstrators in Paris were calling for a large-scale lawsuit against negligent French employers whose actions resulted in hazardous asbestos exposures. French Judge Marie Odile Bertella-Geffroy told a journalist that such an action would be difficult to pursue because of the need for evidence regarding hazardous exposures experienced by each plaintiff and the different health and safety standards in force at the time of these exposures. It seems that, borne on the tide of asbestos litigation sweeping through Europe, even Swiss asbestos claimants are now taking legal action; asbestos cases against Eternit brought by former employees are pending in the Glarus cantonal courts.5
October 19, 2006
3 Daniele Mariani. Fund for Eternit asbestos victims set up. October 6, 2006. http://www.swissinfo.org/eng/swissinfo/html?siteSect=43&sid=7135849
5 The Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Niederurnen was located in canton Glarus; the company's Swiss headquarters are still located in this town.