Advocates of better protection for workers from mesothelioma and other occupational diseases have won a major court victory.
A Swiss billionaire and a Belgian executive – both former managers in the Italian affiliate of the Eternit cement company – have been sentenced to 16 years in jail and ordered to pay millions of Euros for negligence that led to more than 2,000 deaths from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. The Reuters news agency predicts that the decision, announced in Turin, Italy, could “set a precedent for proceedings worldwide about safety in the workplace.”
Stephan Schmidheiny was a former owner of the cement company and Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne was a shareholder and former manager in the firm. The two were found guilty of intentionally failing to implement safety measures in the Italian plant to protect workers from exposure to asbestos, a known carcinogen and the cause of mesothelioma. The Eternit plant was closed in 1986.
More than 6,000 people were seeking damages in the case. Many were family members of workers who died, primarily from mesothelioma or lung cancer as a direct result of their employment at the cement plant. Thousands of other former employees are still fighting mesothelioma or other chronic pulmonary diseases.
In addition to the money awarded to individual workers and families, the case also provided 45 million Euros to the effected towns in Italy’s Piedmont region and another 100 million Euros to the victims’ group Afeva. According to the Reuters report, prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello called it “a dream come true” and said the case was “the biggest trial in the world and in history as far as safety at work is concerned.” Italy’s health minister also called the sentence “historic”, in light of the fact that mesothelioma and asbestos diseases are an international issue.
Asbestos is still widely used as an inexpensive cement additive around the world, putting hundreds of thousands of workers at risk for mesothelioma. The World Health Organization reports more than 92,000 mesothelioma deaths between 1994 and 2008, but cautions that the figure may be low due to underreporting. Most of those deaths are due to unsafe asbestos handling. Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer and is generally not considered curative with standard therapies.
Italiano, Paola, “UPDATE 2-Industrialists sentenced to jail in Italy Asbestos trial” Februarry 13, 2012, Reuters News Agency website, Accessed February 15, 2012.
Global mesothelioma death reported to the World Health Organization between 1994 and 2008”, World Health Organization bulletin, May 17, 2011.