Italian courts think so. While it’s extremely rare for someone in charge of a US corporation to be charged with crimes, it’s even more unusual if one is convicted. That’s not the case in Italy.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber used for centuries in thousands of products. If fibers become airborne when the products are made, installed, age, or removed, they can be inhaled or swallowed. The fibers become lodged in the body’s organs, where they can cause fatal cancers, including mesothelioma, over years or decades.
For years, executives running companies making and selling asbestos-containing products knew the fibers caused debilitating and fatal health conditions. Still, they failed to protect its workers, those buying and using these products. Their greed led to countless deaths over many years, often decades after a person’s asbestos exposure ended.
Former Cement Company Owner Sentenced for Manslaughter
A Swiss billionaire was sentenced to 12 years in jail in June after his conviction on aggravated manslaughter charges. His crimes relate to the deaths of 392 people caused by asbestos exposure, according to The Guardian. It’s considered the most significant workplace death trial in Italy.
Stephan Schmidheiny, 73, a Swiss man and the former principal shareholder of the cement company Eternit Italia, was sentenced in a Novara court. He was found guilty of causing the deaths of 392 people in Casale Monferrato, the town that, until 1986, was the location of the largest of Eternit Italia’s six factories.
The victims include 60 factory workers. The rest lived in the town and surrounding area. The factory’s waste was crushed outside its buildings. The wind blew asbestos dust across the town.
Schmidheiny, not the company, was charged and tried because, under Italian law, a firm’s owner is responsible for workplace accidents or deaths.
Eternit’s factories made asbestos-containing cement during the 1970s and 1980s. Schmidheiny managed the Casale Monferrato plant from 1976 to its closure. The company went bankrupt in 1986.
In addition to the jail time, judges ordered him to pay the equivalent of:
- $53.4 million in provisional damages to Casale Monferrato’s local authority
- $32 million to the Italian state
- $534 million to a local association for relatives of asbestos victims
Schmidheiny’s lawyer, Astolfo Di Amato, stated his client would appeal. Di Amato, apparently ever the optimist, also said he was “very pleased” that the verdict meant Schmidheiny couldn’t be considered an “intentional murderer.”
Prosecutor Gianfranco Colace asked the court for a life sentence and argued that the defendant knew that asbestos exposure could be lethal but failed to protect workers or those living near the plant.
Schmideiny faced criminal charges in the past, reports Forbes. The Italian Supreme Court in 2014 quashed a 16-year sentence for Schmidheiny’s 2012 conviction in a Turin court. He was convicted for his role in the deaths of more than 3,000 people allegedly exposed to Eternit’s asbestos-containing building materials in Italy.
Italian Tire Maker Executives Found Guilty of Manslaughter
A Milan court in 2015 gave 11 former Pirelli corporate board members, including two ex-CEOs, jail terms of up to seven years and eight months for manslaughter due to their roles in causing 20 asbestos-related factory worker deaths. According to the BBC, the defendants managed Pirelli between 1979 and 1989 when plant workers were exposed to asbestos at the company’s Milan factory.
A year later, a Milan court acquitted nine other former Pirelli managers of manslaughter and causing grave harm in factory workers’ asbestos-related deaths or illnesses, according to the Associated Press.
Pirelli is a global tire-making company which started in Milan in 1872. It has factories in 12 countries. It has about $7 billion in revenues in 2022, according to the company’s website.
The tire-making process starts with pouring rubber into molds. Steam is applied to melt the rubber in molds, presses, or autoclaves. The equipment used to heat the rubber contained many asbestos-containing parts, including brakes, boards, and insulation. The tire molds were lined with talc, which likely contains asbestos, so that tires could be easily removed.
Get Help If You Are Diagnosed With Mesothelioma
If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, you should focus on your medical care and quality of life while we protect your right to compensation for the harm you suffer.
People who contracted mesothelioma or other severe illnesses due to asbestos cement or while working at a tire plant may be entitled to compensation for medical treatment, lost work, pain and suffering, and other losses. To get help, contact us at Satterley & Kelley, PLLC today. We’ll talk with you about your situation and help you decide your course of action.