Victims of asbestos poisoning are well accustomed to the gruelling twists and turns of Italy’s judicial process. But even the most battle-hardened were ill-prepared for the latest, bitter turn in a landmark case that has dragged on for decades.
Late on Wednesday, Italy’s top court overturned an 18-year prison sentence for Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, the former owner of construction giant Eternit.
Schmidheiny, 67, was found guilty in 2012 of causing 3,000 deaths linked to the use of asbestos in his factories – in the biggest ever trial on asbestos-related deaths.
He was jailed in absentia and ordered to pay tens of millions of euros in compensation to local authorities and families of the victims, who included factory workers and residents who lived near Eternit factories in northern, central and southern Italy.
But Italy’s Court of Cassation said the evidence on which he was originally convicted was now out of date, because the statute of limitations had expired in the case.
“Contorting the individual’s right to justice may well produce justice today — but it could create a thousand more injustices in the future,” said Prosecutor Francesco Mauro Iacoviello.
“Sometimes what is right and what is just, take different directions. But for magistrates there is no alternative — they have to do what is right,” he added.
The ruling sparked outrage in the packed courtroom, with the furious audience shouting “shame on you”.
“This is a terrible decision that wipes out 30 years of legal battles – without possibility of appeal,” said Alain Bobbio, a spokesman for French anti-asbestos association Andeva, who was present at the court.
“It also completely ignores the people who continue to die from asbestos four decades after the company went bankrupt,” Bobbio told FRANCE 24.
‘Punch in the stomach’
The landmark 2012 verdict had been greeted as a turning point in the battle to eradicate asbestos and punish its chief advocates.
Schmidheiny and his Belgian associate, Baron Jean-Louis de Cartier, who died last year, had been found guilty of causing a “permanent health and environmental catastrophe” at their company’s Italian plants, the effects of which are still being felt 28 years after they shut down.
In the northern town of Casale Monferrato, home to the largest of Eternit’s four plants, 1,800 people have died of asbestos-related diseases, including some 800 who never even worked for the company.
Every week in the small town of 35,000, doctors discover a new case of pleural mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
The town has provided the bulk of the 6,000 people who joined the class-action suit against Eternit, in what the Italian media described as the “trial of the century”.
“Asbestos is still killing and the court’s decision on Wednesday certainly won’t end this disaster,” said Bruno Pesce, who heads Casale’s association of families of the victims.
“The court is acting as though the crime ended in 1986 [when the company went bankrupt], but our people still suffer,” he told FRANCE 24, describing the ruling as “a punch in the stomach”.
A deadly mineral
Eternit, a secretive international firm named after a construction material mixing asbestos and cement, opened its Casale plant in 1907. At the time, asbestos was known as the “magical mineral” because of its remarkable resistance.
Soon, Eternit’s fibre slates were being used across Italy to build homes, schools, hospitals and cinemas.
Waste material at the Casale plant was crushed in the open, ensuring the poisonous dust was blown all over town. And when it wasn’t disposed of, it was simply gifted to workers’ families so they could use it at home.
The children of Casale even used to play on “white beaches” made of powder blown over from the Eternit plant.
“We knew people got sick working for Eternit, but we didn’t expect them to die of it,” former employee Nicola Pondrano told FRANCE 24 in 2012, on the eve of the landmark sentence.
Pondrano, who joined the company in 1974 at the age of 24, said he first realised what lay in store when funeral notices began covering the factory’s outside wall.
“Employees who were passing away one after another had barely reached their fifties,” said the former engineer, who soon joined a trade union to call for improved safety at the plant.
His efforts drew a mixed response. “Some managers made a genuine effort to improve our working conditions, but others told me to keep quiet and clean the toilets instead,” he recalled.
A powerful industry
Governments have been just as slow to act on research into the effects of asbestos, some of which dates back to the start of the 20th century.
Nazi Germany – of all regimes – was the first to offer workers compensation in 1943 based on scientific evidence of a link between lung cancer and exposure to asbestos.
Italy decided to ban asbestos in 1992, but it wasn’t until 2005 that a Europe-wide ban on it came into force.
Today the deadly fibre is illegal in more than 60 countries, including most modern industrialised nations with the notable exceptions of the US and Canada, which was until recently the world’s largest producer of asbestos.
While Canadian asbestos miners are banned from selling their product on the domestic market, they remain free to export it to fast-growing countries such as India and Brazil.
Silvana Mossano, a journalist at Italian daily La Stampa, who has covered the Eternit saga for decades, says companies working with asbestos have been instrumental in delaying or watering down legislation.
“The industry is still financing research to convince Canadian authorities to reopen asbestos mines; and when the results are unfavourable, they are simply modified or abandoned,” she said.
The jury in the Eternit trial heard that for decades the Schmidheiny and Cartier families had played a key role in the asbestos cartels that lobbied in favour of the industry.
Investigators searching the offices of a Milanese communications agency hired by Eternit also came across detailed instructions about how to deal with journalists, trade unions and lawyers, and ensure the company’s top brass were cleared of all blame.
‘Faster, fairer justice’
Wednesday’s ruling by Italy’s top court sent shockwaves throughout the country, with thousands taking to social media to blast what they called a “miscarriage of justice”.
Reacting to the furore, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi vowed to reform Italy’s justice system to make it “faster and fairer”.
“We need to speed up justice and change the rules on the statute of limitations,” Renzi told Italian media on Thursday, describing the plaintiff’s ordeal in the Eternit case as “a nightmare”.
According to Andeva’s Bobbio, the court’s decision sanctioned “a divorce between the justice aspired to by the Italian people and the one practiced by professionals indifferent to the suffering of the victims”.
Bobbio said he hoped the ruling would serve as an “electroshock for Italian society” and give a new sense of urgency to the battle against asbestos.
“The people of Casale have shown the way,” he said, adding that campaigners from Belgium, Spain, Japan and Argentina were all present in court on Wednesday and determined to take the battle to their countries.
The mayor of Casale, Concetta Palazzetti, said the town would continue to lead the struggle.
“We will pursue our fight to ban asbestos around the world. The Eternit conviction has been overturned because of prescription rules – not because the crime did not take place,” she told reporters on Thursday.
“We are not a defeated community,” she said. “We are in any case victorious, because we managed – alone – to take a hugely powerful corporation to court and raise awareness of the case.”
Raffaele Guariniello, the prosecutor who secured Eternit’s conviction in 2012, has already gathered a list of 300 new victims.
But this time he plans to sue for murder – a crime that knows no expiry date in Italian law.