In a message that could reverberate in courtrooms around the world, a three-judge panel in Turin, Italy, found two former executives of an asbestos-products conglomerate guilty of involuntary manslaughter, sentencing them to 16 years in jail and more than $50 million in fines.
Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss billionaire, and Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, a baron from Belgium, were accused of negligence in exposing workers at four asbestos-cement factories and townspeople who lived nearby.
They were major shareholders in Eternit, a fiber cement company that made asbestos-laced, roof coverings and pipes. The charges against them involved more than 2,000-asbestos-related deaths.
An exposure to asbestos fibers can cause a variety of respiratory illnesses, including asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer.
Renato Balduzzi, Italian Health minister was elated, describing the verdict as “without exaggeration, truly historic.”
The verdict in the trial, which began in 2009, was announced Monday.
The trial was watched closely by anti-asbestos advocates around the world, including Linda Reinstein of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Association, the leading advocacy group in the United States.
“It is not just a landmark case for the workers, or the people of Italy, but rather represents an opportunity to redefine justice around the world,” Reinstein said in a statement Monday. “This is a landmark criminal case against those who manufacture and produce asbestos.”
Schmidheiny, 64, and De Cartier, 90, were not in the courtroom when the verdicts was announced, but it prompted considerable celebration from the hundreds of people who had crowded into the courtroom and the halls outside to watch.
Many were families of those who suffered health problems from asbestos. Many who were exposed to asbestos at the factories still are waiting to determine if they will be stricken. There is a latency period for mesothelioma that can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years after first exposure.
Eternit in Italy went bankrupt in 1986, which was six years before asbestos was banned in the country. Although asbestos remains legal in the United States, it was banned across Europe in 2005.
An estimated 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace and that 100,000 people die each year from an asbestos-related illness.
Prosecutors in this trial charged the two executives with failing to provide adequate safety protection for workers, despite knowing how dangerous the asbestos was. The investigation into the practice spanned five years.
The Center of Public Integrity, based in Washington, D.C., produced an investigation into the global asbestos trade in 2010 — Dangers in the Dust — that detailed some of the practices formerly used by Eternit.
“I hope that this lesson resounds around the world — corporations cannot knowingly continue to poison workers and communities with such reckless disregard for human life, and call it routine business,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, in an e-mail to the Center for Public Integrity.
The LePresse news agency in Italy, said the defendants were ordered to pay $32.5 million to the town of Casale Monferrato, where one of the factories were located, and another $26 million to those in the Piedmont region, another part of Italy.
The damages involved civil suits brought against the two defendants by an estimated 6,300 people.