A ground breaking trial has concluded this month in Turin, Italy.
The Eternit trial which began in 2009, is one of the largest environmental cases to be taken to Court in Europe and could set a precedent for workplace safety legal proceedings.
The case involved two European executives, a Swiss billionaire and a Belgian baron who operated manufacturing plants in Italy which used asbestos.
Asbestos was widely used in the building and construction industry until it was banned in the UK in 1999 and in Italy in 1998 as it was found to cause health problems in those who were exposed to it. By 2005 all countries in the European Union had also banned its use. Pleural thickening, asbestosis, asbestos lung cancer and the incurable cancer, mesothelioma, are all caused by exposure to asbestos.
Eternit was the trademark for a fibre cement which was used in building and construction materials, particularly in roofing and façade products. It was made by mixing cement with asbestos fibres. It was widely used due to the fire-resistant qualities of asbestos, together with its low cost and light weight.
Eternit’s Italian production plants were closed in 1986 and the company went bankrupt in 1992.
The trial centred around Stephan Schmidheiny, who once owned Eternit and Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, a former executive and major shareholder of the company.
They were found guilty of intentionally refusing to install measures that would have prevented workers from being exposed to asbestos whilst employed at the company’s Italian plants.
The Defendants and their lawyers denied any wrongdoing throughout the case, stating that neither had any direct responsibility for the company. However, the jury decided that the lack of safety measures at four plants across Italy had resulted in the death and serious illness of employees.
At least 2,000 deaths have been attributed to asbestos exposure at the Italian plants. Thousands of other former employees are reported to be suffering with asbestos conditions.
Both men were sentenced to 16 years. This is 4 years longer than the maximum 12-year sentence their crimes usually carry. It was said that this was to reflect the continued fallout affecting the victims. They have also been ordered to pay millions of Euros in fines.
Around 1,500 supporters, victims and relatives gathered to hear the verdict which was broadcast live to large screens. Although the verdict is a positive one and represents a victory for all those affected by the trial, it does little to comfort those suffering with terrible asbestos conditions.
The guilty verdict may now set a precedent in similar cases.
Despite the verdict, the Defendants continue to deny any wrongdoing on their part and have said they plan to appeal the decision.