The leaders of a Swiss construction company, including a Belgian baron, are on trial for negligence in Turin, Italy, due to their firm’s use of asbestos. Baron Jean-Louis de Cartier, age eighty-eight, and Swiss businessman Stephan Schmidheiny, age sixty-two, are the main shareholders in the construction firm Eternit and are accused of allowing workers on roofing projects to leave loose asbestos on job sites. They are charged with creating an environmental and health hazard. If convicted, they could each face a sentence of up to twelve years in prison.
Italian prosecutors claim that the company is responsible for hundreds of deaths in the northern part of the country that can be directly traced to asbestos exposure. Authorities also allege that the firm was negligent in the deaths of hundreds of factory workers who were also exposed to asbestos-containing materials, as well as their families who may have been exposed to the deadly material through fibers trapped in the workers’ clothes.
Raffaele Guariniello, one of the state’s attorneys leading the prosecution’s case, stated that asbestos fibers that remained on roofs during projects conducted by Eternit workers and using materials made in Eternit’s plants became airborne and polluted much of the air around the town of Casale Monferrato, a suburb of Turin. The asbestos dust affected hundreds of area residents, with an estimated eight hundred contracting mesothelioma or other asbestos-related lung diseases while the plant was in operation.
Environmental activists joined with relatives of the deceased townspeople in protesting the lack of safety precautions taken by the company and its officers in both the plant operations and construction phases of the business. Many of the protestors, along with thousands of others, are also due to be involved as plaintiffs in the civil proceedings against the company, Mr. Schmidheiny and Mr. Cartier.
Protestors, news reporters and curious onlookers combined to create such a massive crowd to the small courthouse that many of them had to watch the hearings outside on a large video screen. Several European media outlets are already citing the Eternit case as the “trial of the century”. One local newspaper estimates that the trial could continue through 2010 and may not end until late 2011.
Neither Mr. Schmidheiny nor Mr. Cartier appeared at the hearing; they are both staying in Switzerland and are being tried in absentia. Mr. Schmidheiny has gathered a team of more than two dozen defense attorneys to establish his case. According to his attorneys, Mr. Schmidheiny does not deny that the residents’ deaths, estimated at well over two thousand, were due to asbestos exposure, but he does say that the firm did everything in their power to reduce the dangers to both their workers and the environment.
Although the last Eternit asbestos plant in Italy closed its doors in 1986, former employees, family members and other area residents continue to experience symptoms of mesothelioma and other breathing problems related to asbestos exposure. Cancer researchers understand that such symptoms may not appear in patients until years, even decades, after the initial exposure period.
Legal observers have noted that the Eternit case is reminiscent of one in Australia and another major construction firm, James Hardie Company. In that case, Hardie executives faced civil and criminal penalties due to the use of asbestos in everything from roof insulation to driveway concrete.
Sources: UPI, Canadian Press