On February 13, 2012, the Italian court announced a verdict that may have an impact on people and families around the world who are dealing with mesothelioma. Billionaires Stephan Schidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier, key shareholders in the company Eternit, a producer of fiber-reinforced cement, were each sentenced to sixteen years in prison for the failure to comply with safety regulations in their factories’ uses of asbestos. This class action law suit is being touted as the most significant suit yet, because criminal charges were actually placed on the owners who benefited from the profits of the negligent factories.
Invented in the late 19th century, fiber-reinforced cement products, generally containing a mixture of cement and asbestos, has been favored in construction for it’s relatively light weight along with its resistance to fire and water. Production of this material has reduced significantly since the public has been aware of the risks of exposure to friable asbestos.
Prosecutors in the Eternit case claimed that at least 1,800 people died as a result of asbestos-related diseases in the town of Casale Monferrato, where the largest of the company’s factories was located. According to some reports, the company conducted its asbestos disposal in the open, releasing clouds of friable asbestos into the air to settle and collect on the town’s streets. They also gave left-over asbestos to families to use at home. When evidence of the dangers of asbestos began to surface, the company apparently concealed it and continued harmful practices, intending to protect the company profits.
In addition to facing criminal charges, Schidheiny and de Cartier were ordered to pay €95 million (about $126 million US dollars) to families of the victims, as well as large sums to other entities and organizations, including trade unions and the town of Casale. This is a clear victory for asbestos awareness groups and advocates of mesothelioma victim’s rights.
One of the biggest challenges facing groups dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of asbestos is the inconsistency among trading nations in their asbestos laws and regulations. Many workers rights groups, environmental advocates, and asbestos awareness groups are hoping this case will have positive global impact on this issue.