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Prison for Asbestos Tycoon Overturned

Friday, November 21, 2014

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Igniting a public furor, Italy's Supreme Court has thrown out the conviction and prison sentence of a Swiss billionaire whose factories had been linked to the deaths of about 3,000 people.

On Wednesday (Nov. 19), the court annulled the verdict against Stephan Schmidheiny, saying the statute of limitations in the notorious scandal had expired, according to Agence France-Presse, which quoted the Italian news agency ANSA.

EternitRoofing
Harald Weber / Wikimedia

Eternit roofing was used throughout the regions of Italy where factories were located.

Schmidheiny, the heir to a Swiss industrial dynasty, was found guilty in 2012 of negligence related to conditions at his company's factories in the 1970s and 1980s.

The construction company, Eternit, made asbestos-containing fiber cement and other building materials. The company closed its four Italian plants in 1986 and went out of business after 80 years.

The closing of the factories started the clock on the statute of limitations for the environmental charges, the court said Wednesday

Thousands of Victims

The victims included both workers and neighbors of the factories. Prosecutors said that Eternit's products were used to pave streets and insulate roofs around the plants, "resulting in years of exposure for the unsupecting local population," Reuters reported.

The charges originated after health complaints by thousands of workers and area residents. Prosecutors say some of those former workers and residents are still dying today from asbestos-related disease that originated from the old factories.

Casale
Georgius XXXIX / Wikimedia

One Eternit factory operated in the industrial town of Casale, Italy, where thousands of residents reported asbestos-related illnesses. All of the factories were closed in 1986.

The trial court convicted Schmidheiny of gross negligence and sentenced him in absentia to 16 years in prison.

In 2013, an appeals court affirmed the verdict, saying Schmidheiny had caused "a permanent health and environment catastrophe," and increased the prison term to 18 years.

The verdicts also carried monetary judgments in the tens of millions of Euros meant to compensate the victims. Those awards were also negated by Wednesday's decision, although a spokesman for Schmidheiny says the company has already paid "many tens of millions of Euros" in compensation since 2008.

'Shame on You'

News of the court's decision sparked outrage. Victims' relatives who had gathered to hear the verdict shouted "Shame on you" at the court, Agence France-Presse reported.

Even Premier Matteo Renzi publicly criticized the decision as a failing of the notoriously slow Italian justice system, the Associated Press reported.

Stephan Schmidheiny
Keystone / Aargauerzeitung

Stephan Schmidheiny was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1996. Yale stood by the honor after he was sentenced to prison for environmental crimes.

"It's not possible that for some cases the demand for justice runs out because there are some wounds that don't know time limits," Renzi told the AP.

Some reports suggested that prosecutors were opening a new manslaughter investigation into the case. Italian media quoted Prosecutor Raffaele Guarinello as urging relatives of the victims not to lose faith in Italian justice, the AP said.

Philanthropy and Honor

Schmidheiny has never been in custody and has, in fact, become quite prominent worldwide in environmental issues. Since his companies folded, he has founded several NGOs to promote sustainable development in Latin America.

In 1996, Yale University awarded Schmidheiny an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, calling him "one of the world's most environmentally conscious business leaders."

EternitWaterTank
Jacopo Werther / Wikimedia

Eternit's products were used to pave streets and insulate roofs around its plants, causing "a permanent health and environment catastrophe," the appeals court said.

After his conviction, victims' families demanded that Yale rescind the honor, but the university declined.

"The decision to award the degree was made by a committee that considered his full record as a philanthropist who used his wealth to fund sustainable development in Latin America and elsewhere, and a path-breaking international advocate of change in the way businesses address environmental sustainability, as well as a businessman who inherited and dismantled a decades-old family asbestos processing concern," the statement from Yale said.

   

Tagged categories: Asbestos; Cement; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Environmental Control; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; Latin America; Laws and litigation; Lawsuits; North America; Roof insulation

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