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10 Dec 2009

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Eternit lawsuit (re asbestos exposure in Italy)


Date lawsuit was filed
10 Dec 2009
Location of Filing: Italy
Location of Incident: Italy
Type of Litigation: Domestic



In 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. 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.

In June 2023, a court in Novara, Italy found Stephan Schmidheiny guilty of causing the death of 392 people in Casale Monferrato - a town in the Piedmont region of Italy which housed the largest of Eternit Italia’s six factories until 1986. The Court sentenced Schmidheiny to 12 years in prison on aggravated manslaughter charges.

- "Swiss billionaire jailed over asbestos-related deaths in Italian town", Angela Giuffrida, The Guardian, 8 June 2023

- "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