Monday 13th, February 2012. The Eternit trial and verdict: the essence.
Stephan Schmidheiny (65) used to be the owner of the Swiss-Belgian industrial group Eternit (ETEX), which was in turn a major shareholder of the Italian subsidiary of Eternit between 1976 and 1986. The Belgian Baron Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne (90) was a director and minority shareholder of Eternit Italy. Today, they were both sentenced to 16 years prison by an Italian court in Turin. The verdicts are not effective until final, meaning the defendants have the right to go to a Court of Appeal and to the Supreme Court before they must undergo their verdicts. This could take many years and is, I suspect, the most likely outcome to happen, considering Eternit’s usual game of denial and delay.
The public prosecutor, Mr. Guariniello, had demanded twenty years in jail for both men, for ‘causing a continuing disaster in health and environment’ and for wilfully neglecting safety regulations in the workplace. He is to be admired for being the first public prosecutor in Europe, perhaps even in the world, to undertake such an important prosecution – and of such breath-taking scale. Even today, this massive scale was reflected in the attendance of over two thousand asbestos victims and representatives of reputedly more than sixty asbestos victims associations – all packed together like sardines in four court rooms of the enormous Palace of Justice.
Responsible for the death of 3,000 Italians; and counting
After an initial investigation that began in 1999, the Public Prosecutor’s Office concluded that Schmidheiny and De Cartier were responsible for the management of Eternit Italy. The trial began officially by December 2009; during the countless court sessions, the two accused have never appeared in person even once. They have always been represented by their lawyers – at my last count in Turin, no less than 24 for them both. While the public prosecutors’ aim was to prove personal responsibility, criminal negligence and early knowledge of the health dangers of asbestos, the defendants main defence was to deny being in a responsible position. One of their lawyers even made a last stand today, likening the criminal proceedings to Nazi Germany and considering that the criminal legislation applied was conceived or comparable to ‘destroy the enemy and which justifies Guantanamo’.
The baron and the billionaire are held responsible for the death of approx. 3,000 people in Italy, including employees, their family members and persons in the vicinity of the four locations of Eternit Italy. They will have to pay millions of euros in damages to the claimants – over 6,000 – who joined the criminal trial as civil parties. The claimants include victims and their heirs, local governments, trade unions and insurers amongst many.
It must not be forgotten that the toll of 3,000 victims is nowhere near finished, but will continue for many decades to come, owing to the wide distribution of asbestos by the defendants.
The Criminal Division of the Court awarded 25 million euros to the municipality of Casale Monferatto, where asbestos was mined in the local mountains and transported by open rail lorries through the town to the local asbestos factory. The municipality of Cavagnolo, another Eternit site, was awarded 4 million euros, while the region of Piemonte was awarded 20 million euros for the clean-up of the roads and countryside. Inail, an insurance firm specialising in occupational liability, was awarded 15 million euros.
The defendants are also sentenced to paying 70,000 to 100,000 euros to each of eight associations, including several trade unions and the WWF. The victims and their families are entitled to compensations ranging between 30,000 and 35,000 euros – for European standards, that is not particularly much, but cumulatively still amounting to a massive 95 million euros just for them.
International importance
Much of the trial’s success must be attributed to the persistent efforts of Mr. Guariniello, who invested over a decade of his life into this trial. Still, an important factor has also been the unprecedented way in which asbestos specialists – notably Barry Castleman – and asbestos lawyers from all over the world shared crucial evidence with the prosecutor, thereby enabling him to bring Eternit inescapably to justice. Working together in this fashion has done much to make the international asbestos community closer and stronger. Sharing evidence has had another beneficial effect: it will allow asbestos victims worldwide to gain access to evidence that was previously unknown or unavailable to them, strengthening their civil cases against Eternit in the dozens of countries where it is located.
Also, public prosecutors in other countries may study the Turin trial as a precedent for bringing their own criminal trials against directors of national Eternit subsidiaries. In Belgium, for instance, Eric Jonckheere recently won a civil case against the Eternit factory in Kapelle-op-den-Bos, which is widely contaminated with asbestos waste from the Eternit factory. In his court case, much evidence came to light which, in combination with the Turin evidence, should spur Belgian public prosecutors into action: to make the Belgian directors responsible for their criminal neglect of public and environmental health and to make Eternit Belgium pay for the enormous costs of cleaning the countryside of its waste material. Health insurers and local municipalities should also not have to look far for incentive to join such trials as civil parties.
In The Netherlands, much the same could apply to the directors of the Eternit factory in (formerly named) Goor, where the roads, ditches, farm yards and nature are also contaminated with asbestos waste from the Eternit factory. It is well documented how the Eternit factory actively encouraged locals to collect asbestos waste material for private purposes, knowing all the while of its health dangers but neglecting to inform them of this. The necessary environmental clean-up will take decades at huge costs borne by the taxpayer – this state of affairs can hardly be justified if criminal negligence can be proven. For if anything, Eternit (ETEX) is hardly short of funds.
Nearly every country in the world has its Casale Monferrato, its Kapelle-op-den-Bos and its Goor – and the occupational, home exposure and environmental victims that go with it. Now it’s time for more Guariniello’s to stand up – and be assisted by the global asbestos victims’ community.
Author’s note to the readers
Feel free to translate this document into any language; publish it wherever you like if you consider that to be in the interests of your asbestos victims community. Sharing makes us stronger.
Yvonne Waterman, Sc.D. LL.M., The Netherlands.