TURIN, ITALY // A billionaire Swiss industrialist and a Belgian executive were sentenced to 16 years in jail by an Italian court and ordered to pay millions of euros in damages for negligence that led to more than 2,000 asbestos-related deaths.
The verdict could set a precedent for proceedings worldwide about safety in the workplace. Relatives of the victims and hundreds of others filled the courthouse, some crying, others applauding when the sentence was read out.
Stephan Schmidheiny, 64, the former owner of the Swiss fibre cement firm Eternit, and Belgian shareholder and former executive Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, 90, were found guilty of intentionally omitting to install measures to prevent health damage from asbestos at Eternit's Italian plants, which closed in 1986.
The defendants, who were tried in absentia, have denied wrongdoing and plan to appeal, their lawyers said.
"I thought I would be able to cry today but ... I didn't. It's just too hard to let yourself go," said Romana Blasotti, who lost five family members.
More than 6,000 people, including former employees and residents of the four towns where the plants were located, were seeking damages in the case. They were each awarded an average €30,000 (Dh146,000).
The defendants were accused for their role as executives at the cement maker's Italian affiliate, Eternit SpA.
Prosecutors said the lack of safety measures led to the deaths of 2,000 people, mostly from cancer triggered by contact with asbestos, and thousands of other cases of chronic pulmonary disease, tumours and other illnesses over the past four decades.
They affected workers and residents of Casale Monferrato and Cavagnolo, two hill towns near Turin; the village of Rubiera in northern Italy; and the seaside town of Bagnoli, outside Naples.
Compensation awarded by the court included €25 million to Casale Monferrato, €20m to the Piedmont region, and €100m to the victims' group Afeva.