May 23, 2019
Arbitrary conviction with no legal foundation
Stephan Schmidheiny made scapegoat for Italian inefficiency.
May 23, 2019 – The court of first instance in Turin today issued its decision in the Eternit trial. It convicted Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny of the negligent homicide of two individuals. This conviction lacks any legal foundation and is appalling. While the local managers in charge were acquitted before the same court for the same events, as well as in similar cases, Stephan Schmidheiny has been sentenced to 4 years in prison. In Turin, there is clearly no equality before the law. During the trial, Stephan Schmidheiny’s defence proved that he had managed the Swiss Eternit Group, SEG, responsibly in accordance with applicable law, and raised awareness among the managers responsible at the local Eternit companies in Italy with information enabling them to improve occupational health and safety. SEG facilitated 86 billion lire in investment by the Italian Eternit SpA during the 1976–1986 period that was relevant to the trial, and never took any profits from its Italian subsidiary. Stephan Schmidheiny is responsible for neither the asbestos tragedy nor the deaths of the two individuals concerned. Rather, his conscientious approach within the industry spared countless people from contracting an asbestos- related disease. The defence will appeal against this affronting verdict. It must be noted that Stephan Schmidheiny was acquitted by Italy’s Supreme Court in the first Eternit trial in 2014. The conviction pronounced today thus also disregards fundamental human rights. The restaging of a trial lost by the prosecution is a violation of the double jeopardy principle that is also enshrined in the Italian constitution. This principle guarantees that no person may be tried before the courts or punished twice in the same case. The defence will also fight this flagrant abuse of the law.
With today’s conviction, the court in Turin has upheld the absurd accusations made by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office. The latter has claimed since the beginning of the first Eternit trial in 2003 that Stephan Schmidheiny orchestrated a global conspiracy to conceal the dangers of asbestos to human health. He was accused of acting purely out of greed for profit and failing to institute the necessary safety measures at Eternit’s Italian factories, thereby causing the deaths of employees and local residents. These allegations are pure invention, contradicting both the facts of the case and the evidence presented in court.
Pioneer of asbestos withdrawal
Stephan Schmidheiny is regarded around the world as a pioneer in dealing with the risks of asbestos processing. He took over as head of the Swiss Eternit Group, SEG, from his father in 1976, as a 28-year-old. At the time, SEG had a broad network of minority holdings in Eternit plants in 32 countries. However, the only companies that were wholly owned by the Schmidheiny family were SEG and the Swiss Eternit AG. Other shareholders, including the Belgian Eternit and in most cases also public shareholders, were on board with all foreign Eternit companies. Under Stephan Schmidheiny’s leadership, SEG made massive investments in workplace safety and improving production facilities with a view to protecting the health and safety of its employees. These must be placed in the context of the state- regulated industry standards of the time, according to which it was possible to use asbestos safely by monitoring dust exposure.
Billions in investment
Stephan Schmidheiny never personally held any office within the Italian Eternit SpA. He never served on either the Board of Directors or in the management of the Italian holding company, neither did he ever hold any position at any Eternit SpA factory. The family-owned SEG was merely a shareholder in the listed Italian Eternit SpA between 1952 and 1986. Between 1973 and the liquidation of Eternit SpA in 1986, SEG was its principal shareholder, which is why this time was referred to in the Eternit trials as the “Swiss period”. Asbestos processing was not banned in Italy until 1992.
The fact is that, during this Swiss period (1973–1986), SEG never collected any profit from the Italian Eternit SpA. Instead, by way of capital increases and shareholder loans, SEG enabled the Italian holding company to make enormous investments totalling 86 billion lire – equivalent to some CHF 300 million today – in improving workplace safety, in particular. This dramatically reduced dust levels and the incidence of illness in the local factories belonging to the Italian Eternit SpA in Casale Monferrato, Cavagnolo, Napoli-Bagnoli, Rubiera and Syracuse.
The investments enabled the Eternit SpA plants to comply with the “safe use” safety standards. These internationally recognised standards were being encouraged at the time by the World Health Organization WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Facts about the Turin trial
The Turin trial that has now been concluded examined the asbestos-related deaths of Giulio Testore (1926–2008) and Rita Rondano (1940–2012). According to the charges, these deaths were connected to the asbestos cement factory operated by Eternit SpA in Cavagnolo. Known as SACA (Società Anonima Cemento Amianto), the plant was originally founded in 1947 as a competitor to Eternit SpA. It was acquired by Eternit SpA in 1953, and subsequently managed as an independent company within the Group. The plant in Cavagnolo was closed in 1982 as the result of financial difficulties, and the Italian Eternit SpA went into liquidation in 1986.
The evidence presented to the Court showed that, when production began in the 1950s, hardly any measures to reduce dust levels were planned. The first improvements were made in the 1960s, reducing dust exposure for the first time. From the beginning of the Swiss period (1973) onwards, enormous investments were made in increasing workplace safety. Extraction systems were installed, asbestos was transported only in sealed plastic sacks and processed only in closed systems, and the wearing of face masks was mandatory. These measures were proven to reduce dust massively, to the very lowest levels.
Giulio Testore worked at SACA in Cavagnolo between 1955 and 1981, and was listed as a victim in the very first Eternit trial. According to the medical documentation presented during the trial, he died of asbestosis in 2008, at the age of 82. This lung disease is caused by breathing in asbestos fibres, which then form deposits in the airways. The risk of contracting asbestosis rises along with an increase in dust levels and the number of years of asbestos exposure. It was proven during the trial that the dust exposure that triggered Testore’s condition was not connected with the period in which SEG held a majority shareholding in the Italian Eternit SpA.
The court nonetheless concluded that Stephan Schmidheiny was personally responsible for Giulio Testore’s death. In doing so, the same Turin court completely contradicts its verdict in an identical case: in its decision in 2015, the local managers responsible for SACA during the Swiss period were acquitted of the death of Giulio Testore. In this particular judgment, the court found that dust exposure during the Swiss period had been so low that it was irrelevant to Giulio Testore’s illness. Clearly, Turin permits different law to be applied to the same facts.
Rita Rondano died of mesothelioma in 2012, at the age of 72. Asbestos fibres are thought to trigger this rare form of cancer. In the case of mesothelioma, the latency period between the start of exposure to asbestos and tumour manifestation is an average of 30 to 45 years, with a range of variation from 15 to 70 years. According to the most recent medical research findings, it is not possible to determine the point in time of tumour initiation, i.e. the time at which cells begin to change and form tumours. Furthermore, scientists have found that continued exposure to asbestos after the tumour initiation stage is irrelevant to how the cancer develops.
Rita Rondano was not employed at Eternit. She lived from birth in areas exposed to asbestos, and worked during the 1960s as a hairdresser. At that time, hair-dryers were insulated with asbestos. During the trial, the defence proved that, when Stephan Schmidheiny took office in 1976, Rita Rondano had already been exposed to asbestos at a variety of locations for more than 20 years.
Despite this, the court concluded that Stephan Schmidheiny was responsible for Rita Rondano’s death. In the interests of a conviction, the Turin court thus constructed a causal nexus that courts in all other, comparable asbestos-related trials in recent years do not believe exists. According to the medical theory on the genesis of asbestos-related types of cancer – now recognised by the Italian courts right up to the highest court of appeal – in an environment with several sources of asbestos exposure, the particular exposure that led to the development of mesothelioma cannot be proven beyond doubt. Thus, in the case of Rita Rondano it is impossible to state whether the asbestos which caused her illness originated from the Eternit factory or from another source. The Turin court is quite evidently manipulating the facts of the case so that they fit the criteria for a criminal offence that are prescribed in law, in order to convict Stephan Schmidheiny.
Scapegoat for Italian inefficiency
Some 1,000 firms in Italy, including many state-owned operations, used asbestos in their production. Despite this, the Italian state blithely ignored the regulation of asbestos processing and use for decades. The Italian government’s failures in regulating asbestos processing are documented in detail in the judgment of the Italian Supreme Court in the first Eternit trial, issued on 19 November 2014. It states that the government only began to regulate asbestos processing long after the closure of factory in Cavagnolo in 1982, and the liquidation of Eternit SpA in 1986.
The EU issued Directive No. 83/477/EEC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work in 1983. This Directive specifies the maximum permissible concentration of asbestos fibres at industrial plants, and was to have been adopted by the member states into their national laws by the beginning of 1987 at the latest. In its judgment of December 1990, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that Italy had not implemented this Directive and had thus failed to fulfil its obligations under the EEC Treaty. Only in 1991 did the Italian state issue a corresponding directive. In March 1992, it then declared a ban on asbestos. By following internationally recognised safety standards, SEG thus applied much stricter norms to the production processes at the Italian Eternit SpA than were required by the Italian government or used by Eternit’s competitors.
In a further judgment, the Italian Supreme Court also commented on the situation at the Eternit factories – and knowledge about the dangers of asbestos – at the time. According to the written judgment issued by this highest court of appeal in May 2018, the level of knowledge then at both government and industry levels was based on the assumption that asbestos could be used safely, which is why asbestos processing had been permitted in Italy until 1992. The court’s judgment also pointed out that government labour inspectors had always found the production processes at the Eternit factories to be prudent and compliant during the Swiss period, and had confirmed this accordingly.
Humanitarian programme for victims to be maintained
Based on his entrepreneurial and philanthropic beliefs, Stephan Schmidheiny has taken care of the victims of the asbestos catastrophe in Italy for years. Since 2008, he has been offering compensation to former employees and residents of areas surrounding Eternit factories who are affected by an asbestos-related disease. In the interests of providing simple and unbureaucratic help to those affected, the offer is available via the www.offerta-eternit.it website. Around 2,000 people have now taken advantage of this offer, and compensation of more than 50 million Swiss francs has been paid out. Stephan Schmidheiny will continue to maintain this programme for the benefit of the victims of this social tragedy.
Lisa Meyerhans, Head of Communications for Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny email:
Prof. Astolfo Di Amato, Principal Defence Lawyer for Stephan Schmidheiny email: