Corporate Executives Sentenced to Prison for Asbestos Deaths: Could it Happen in the UK?

A court in Italy gained worldwide attention this week when it convicted two wealthy foreign executives of involuntary manslaughter for exposing thousands of people to asbestos.

The defendants, billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland, former owner of the Eternit conglomerate, and Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne of Belgium, a major shareholder in the firm, were sentenced to 16 years in prison after the court concluded the men were responsible for the deaths of at least 3,000 people.

The victims were either workers at four Italian asbestos cement factories or residents who lived near the plants. Asbestos fibers can cause deadly diseases, such as mesothelioma, a cancer that attacks the lungs or abdomen.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Center for Public Integrity, “If a worker were to shoot his boss we would call it murder, but when the boss kills the worker with poison slowly over the years we call it a job.”

Schmidheiny’s lawyers say their client plans to appeal the conviction.

Eternit closed its operations in Italy in 1986 – six years before asbestos was banned in Italy.