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10 June 2013

Asbestos trial: Appeals court sharpens Schmidheiny sentence

On 3 June, an Italian appeals court has handed down a longer prison sentence to Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny for his role in factory deaths caused by asbestos exposure. He has indicated plans to take the decision to Italy's highest court.

The appeals court in Turin convicted Schmidheiny, aged 65, to 18 years in prison. The court also dropped charges against his business partner Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier because the Belgian baron died May 21 at the age of 92.

The Swiss billionaire and de Cartier used to be the majority shareholders in Eternit Genova, a firm that owned four asbestos factories in Italy. They were held responsible for the deaths of almost 3,000 people because they had allowed toxic asbestos dust from the production of roofing materials and pipes to circulate on the factory floor.

In February 2012, the court in Turin had sentenced Schmidheiny and de Cartier to 16 years in prison and fined them millions of euros in punitive damages for involuntary manslaughter. The courts accused the managers of knowing about the dangers of asbestos but not taking the necessary measures to protect those who were either employed by Eternit or living in the vicinity of the factories.

The men appealed the original court decision, saying that the ruling was incomprehensible. They had argued that they were not directly responsible for the management of Eternit Italy, which went bankrupt in 1986, six years before asbestos was banned.

Although it is known today that exposure to asbestos causes cancer, victims and their families have faced hurdles in bringing proceedings against companies or their former owners because it can take as long as 40 years for the disease to develop.

The Swiss Federal Court threw out charges of manslaughter, murder and bodily harm against the former Eternit owners in 2008, arguing that the statute of limitations of ten years had passed.

The Italian court, however, last year convicted the businessmen and sentenced them to pay significant punitive damages to towns in the Piedmont region as well as to Italy’s national accident insurer, other organisations and the victims themselves.


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