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Lawsuit against Eternit (re asbestos exposure in Italy)

Pour la version française de ce profil, cliquez ici.

In 2004, prosecutors in Italy launched an investigation into the deaths of former employees of the Swiss building company Eternit, after receiving reports of former workers dying from lung diseases associated with asbestos exposure. Multiple investigations and trials were held against majority shareholders Stefan Schmidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier. While Jean-Louis de Cartier died in May 2013 and couldn't be found guilty of any charges as a result, Stefan Schmidheiny was sentenced by the Turin court to four years in prison for manslaughter in May 2019.

asbestos cementIn 2004, prosecutors in Turin, Italy, investigated the death of a man who had died of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related lung disease.  The deceased man was a former employee of the Swiss building firm, Eternit.  On 12 December 2004, the Asbestos Victims Families Association of Casale sent a statement to Turin’s public prosecutor with names of 1000 people who had fallen ill or died as a result of asbestos exposure.  The prosecutor launched a wider investigation into asbestos-related deaths of Eternit workers in four northern Italian locations.  The investigation led to criminal charges against two former Eternit directors and who together hold a majority of the company’s shares: Stefan Schmidheiny (a Swiss national) and Jean-Louis de Cartier (a Belgian national).  The prosecutor charged these individuals with causing an environmental disaster and failing to take appropriate safety measures to mitigate asbestos exposure.

The trial opened on 10 December 2009.  The prosecution claims that as majority shareholders, de Cartier and Schmidheiny were responsible for the management of Eternit’s Italian plants from 1966 to 1972 and from 1976 to 1986 respectively.  The prosecutors charge that the defendants are responsible for the deaths of over 2000 people in northern Italy, including residents, factory workers and their families, who may have been exposed to asbestos fibres trapped in workers’ clothes.  They further allege that Eternit left asbestos fibres on roofs during its projects, and that these fibres became airborne and polluted the air around Casale Monferrato, a suburb of Turin.  Schmidheiny does not deny that the deaths were caused by asbestos exposure.  He maintains that the company did everything in its power to reduce the dangers associated with asbestos exposure to both its workers and the surrounding environment.  Schmidheiny's spokesman claims that he was a majority shareholder of the Swiss Eternit Group, but never owned the Italian factories.  De Cartier declares that he was a non-executive director of Eternit Genoa and was never responsible for operational management, including workplace health and safety.

The trial ended in November 2011.  The prosecutor sought 20 year jail terms for each of the defendants.  On 13 February 2012, the court found the defendants guilty of negligence and sentenced them to 16 years’ imprisonment.  In June 2013 an Italian appeals court increased the sentence against Stephan Schmidheiny to 18 years in prison for causing the death of 3000 people. The court dropped charges against the second defendant, Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier, because he died in May 2013.  On 19 November 2014, the Italian Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision and acquitted Stephan Schmidheiny on the grounds that the statute of limitations had passed. 

In July 2015, an Italian tribunal referred the case to the Constitutional Court to assess if the former CEO, Stephan Schmidheiny, could be tried for voluntary manslaughter.  On 21 July 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that he could not be tried for deaths that have already been subject to other proceedings.

Another trial relating to the deaths of two employees of the Eternit factory in Cavagnolo has started. On 29 November 2016, charges against Schmidheiny were changed from manslaughter to involuntary manslaughter. On 12 January 2017, Turin prosecutors appealed to the Cassation Court against a judge’s decision to downgrade charges to involuntary manslaughter.

In January 2019, an investigating judge from Naples started a new lawsuit against M. Schmidheiny. The hearing will start in April 2019.  On 23 May 2019, the Turin court  sentenced former CEO, Stephan Schmidheiny to four years in prison in one of the asbestos-related death cases in Italy. He was tried for manslaughter.

- "Eternit billionaire's asbestos jail term overturned", Swissinfo.ch, 20 Nov 2014
- "Swiss, Belgian sentenced to jail in Italy asbestos trial", Paola Italiano, Reuters, 13 Feb 2012
- "Italy asbestos trial verdict expected in February", AFP, 21 Nov 2011
- “Jail term sought in Italian asbestos trial”, AFP, 5 Jul 2011
- “Asbestos Criminal Trial Starts in Italy”, Mesothelioma Hope Support Help, 4 Jan 2010
- [Italian] [video] “3000 Asbestos Victims”, La Stampa, 10 Dec 2009
- [Italian] “Eternit, il processo del secolo, in totale oltre 2100 parti civili” [“Eternit, the trial of the century, a total of 2,100 victims”], Lorenza Pleuteri, La Repubblica Torino, 10 Dec 2009
- “Mass asbestos negligence trial opens in Italy”, BBC News, 10 Dec 2009
- [Italian] [video] “Eternit, rinviati a Giudizio i due imputati” [“Eternit: News on the indictment of the two accused”], Sky, 23 Jul 2009 
- [Italian] “Torino, parte il processo contro la Eternit” [“Torino: Eternit trial starts”], Corriere della Sera, 6 Apr 2009

- Stephan Schmidheiny - Business Career [Schmidheiny’s personal website]
- [Italian] AFEVA (Asbestos Victims Families Association)
- [Italian] [ PDF] “Convegno internazionale Eternit / Amianto” [“International Conference Eternit / Asbestos”], Bruno Pesce speech, Asbestos Victims Families, 16 Mar 2010
- Coalition vs Asbestos: Asbestos in the Dock: the Eternit trial report

- [Italian] [PDF] Dispositivo della Sentenza, Tribunale di Torino [Court decision], 13 Feb 2012
- [Italian] [PDF] Decreto che Dispone il Giudizio, Tribunale di Torino [Preliminary Hearing decision], 27 Jul 2009
- [Italian] [PDF] Esposto Presentato alla Procura della Repubblica di Torino [Statement sent to the Public Prosecutor Office of Turin], AFEVA, 22 Dec 2004

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Author: Le Matin (Suisse)

« Eternit bis » : Charges réduites pour Schmidheiny, 29 novembre 2016

L'industriel suisse sera jugé pour homicide par négligence, et non plus pour homicide volontaire...

...[L]a juge turinoise Federica Bompieri a déclaré la prescription pour une centaine de cas et a renvoyé les autres aux parquets régionaux...Stephan Schmidheiny sera jugé à Turin pour deux cas à partir du 14 juin 2017. L'avocat de l'homme d'affaires a salué «une grande victoire»...

...Jusqu'à la faillite du groupe transalpin, survenue en 1986, Stephan Schmidheiny en était le plus grand actionnaire, puis le principal actionnaire...

...Le parquet a accusé les deux entrepreneurs [également Jean-Louis de Cartier] d'avoir causé intentionnellement une catastrophe écologique et d'avoir délibérément omis de prendre des mesures de sécurité dans les usines Eternit italiennes, causant trois mille cas de maladies et de décès, selon lui...

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Author: Agence Télégraphique Suisse (ats)/nxp

« Le parquet de Turin saisit la Cour de cassation », 12 janvier 2017

Le parquet de Turin et le parquet général du Piémont s'opposent à la décision prise fin novembre de réduire les charges pesant sur Stephan Schmidheiny pour les décès dus à l'amiante en Italie. Ils ont décidé de saisir la Cour de cassation.

La juge turinoise Federica Bompieri avait décidé le 29 novembre de juger l'industriel suisse pour homicide par négligence, et non plus pour homicide volontaire dans l'affaire «Eternit bis»...

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19 January 2017

Italy: Prosecutors appeal judge's decision to downgrade charges against ex-Eternit CEO over asbestos exposure deaths

Author: ANSA (Italy)

"Eternit prosecutors appeal", 12 Jan 2017

Turin prosecutors on Thursday appealed to the Italy's highest appeals court, the Cassation Court, against a judge's decision to downgrade charges in the Eternit asbestos-deaths case from voluntary homicide to culpable homicide and...splitting the trial into four branches...The charges against Swiss entrepreneur Stephan Schmidheiny as part of the Eternit asbestos case were changed on November 29...Turin judge ruled that about a hundred of the cases had reached the statute of limitations and ordered that others be transferred to the Reggio Emilia, Vercelli and Naples prosecutor's offices...The lawyer, Sergio Bonetto, noted that the transfer of the cases to three other prosecutors' offices would significantly lengthen the time "before the cause of and responsibility for these deaths can be ascertained".

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Author: ATS, Le Temps (Suisse)

« Procès Eternit en Italie : Stephan Schmidheiny condamné à quatre ans de prison », 23 mai 2019 

Le tribunal de Turin a condamné jeudi l’entrepreneur suisse Stephan Schmidheiny à quatre ans de prison dans l’une des procédures liées aux décès de l’amiante en Italie. Il était jugé pour homicide involontaire.

La procédure porte sur la mort de deux employés de l’entreprise Eternit Italia S.p.a. Gênes dans l’usine de Cavagnolo, près de Turin, a rapporté l’agence italienne Ansa. Le groupe Eternit SEG, dirigé par Stephan Schmidheiny, avait été, de 1973 à sa faillite en 1986, le plus grand actionnaire puis l’actionnaire principale de la société italienne.

Les avocats de l’homme d’affaires dénoncent des accusations « grotesques ». Selon eux, ce procès violait les droits humains fondamentaux de l’accusé : dans la convention européenne des droits de l’homme est ancré le principe de l’interdiction du «non bis in idem» d’après lequel nul ne peut être poursuivi ou puni pénalement (une seconde fois) à raison des mêmes faits.

L’homme d’affaires suisse avait déjà dû affronter un premier procès en février 2012. Il avait alors été condamné à seize ans de prison pour avoir provoqué la mort de près de 3000 personnes, ouvriers ou riverains d’usines du groupe Eternit S.p.a Gênes.

En juin 2013, cette peine avait été alourdie en appel à 18 ans de prison. La Cour d’appel avait également reconnu plusieurs dizaines de millions d’euros de dédommagements aux nombreuses parties civiles. La Cour de cassation avait toutefois acquitté M. Schmidheiny en novembre 2014, jugeant les faits prescrits.

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