In a shocking reversal for international asbestos litigation, Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny was absolved for now of 3,000 deaths of Italian workers exposed to asbestos in factories formerly part of his company, Eternit. Italy’s Supreme Court overturned a ruling which had sentenced the Swiss industrialist to 18 years in prison.
The Italian court ruled that the statute of limitations for asbestos litigation based on environmental contamination had expired in the case against Schmidheiny. A statute of limitations is a set period of time during which a lawsuit may be filed.
An appeals court in 2013 had upheld Schmidheiny’s conviction and increased to 18 years from 16 the prison term handed down by a lower court in 2012. We reported to you on the upheld conviction here in the Kazan Law blog at that time.
Renzi is quoted by the Associated Press (AP) as saying that the case shows that Italy’s justice system needs to be reformed to speed up trials.
Eternit – Over a Hundred Years of Asbestos Contamination
Founded in 1903, Eternit produced asbestos-containing cement until 1997. Headed by the Schmidheiny family since 1933, Eternit also had factories in the Netherlands, France and Brazil as well as Italy. They also owned a distribution subsidiary in the U.S. that dissolved years ago. But they did not get away with murder here. In fact, Kazan Law won a verdict of $11, 500,000 in 2001 against Eternit right here in Alameda County for a construction project estimator and his wife.
Amid a growing scandal about asbestos, Eternit’s four Italian factories closed in 1986 and the company was sold to an Austrian bank in 2003.
In 2009, following five years of investigation, billionaire former CEO Stephan Schmidheiny and major shareholder Louis de Cartier Marchienne were accused of criminal neglect . Both men were found guilty in February 2013 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. You can read about this important asbestos litigation in a free ebook co-edited by my sister Laurie-Kazan Allen and her husband David Allen, who monitor asbestos developments in Europe.
Marchienne died at age 91 on May 21, 2013 during the appeal of his sentence. Charges against him were dropped in June. But Schmidheiny’s sentence was increased to 18 years. He then successfully appealed the case to Italy’s highest court.
Possibility of Future Asbestos Litigation For Eternit Case
According to a Swiss news media website, a Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung has blamed Italy’s federal prosecutor for its “strategy to deal with asbestos damages through criminal proceedings against individuals” – essentially by pinning all the blame on Schmidheiny.
The newspaper maintains that this may not be the end of the Eternit asbestos litigation, noting that “because the acquittal was mainly for formal reasons, it’s unclear whether … the whole palette of allegations is ‘settled’”.
“The Turin public prosecutor’s office is known to be conducting further criminal investigations,” noted the statement from Schmidheiny’s team. “The defense expects the Italian state to now protect [him] from further unjustified criminal proceedings and to cease all current proceedings.”
We can only hope that this expectation proves unwarranted, and that the Italian prosecutor will move ahead with a murder case, for which there is no statute of limitations.