In what Italian Health Minister Renato Balduzzi called a “historic” decision, an Italian court recently convicted two executives of failing to comply with safety rules and sentenced them to serve 16 years behind bars.
Prosecutors alleged that a lack of safety measures at cement maker Eternit’s four plants in Italy resulted in workers and residents being exposed to asbestos, leading to some 2,000 asbestos-related deaths.
The defendants – Stephan Schmidheiny, former Swiss owner of Eternit, and Belgian shareholder Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne – were sentenced in absentia on Feb. 13 and likely will appeal. They also were required to pay millions to former employees and residents.
Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant who testified at the trial as an asbestos expert, said this case stands out in the long history of corporate crime associated with asbestos because individuals were actually held responsible for putting the public at risk.
By comparison, “We really fail in the United States to hold people personally responsible for the public health consequences of their business decisions, and we pay an enormous price for that,” Castleman said.
He noted that although knowledge of asbestos dangers dates back to the 1930s, court documents from the 1970s revealed U.S. industry officials had concealed the threat from the public for decades. “And millions of workers were exposed to mortal dangers because of that,” Castleman said.
Prosecuting those officials would have sent the message that “the people who are personally responsible for making these decisions might actually have to go to a room where the door locks on the other side and they don’t take your gold card,” Castleman said. “We have a lot to learn from the Italians and so does the rest of the world.”