Billionaire Faces Decades-old Asbestos Charges

Switzerland–Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny and Belgian baron Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne appeared in a Turin courtroom on Monday for preliminary proceedings. The courtroom was packed with curious bystanders, protestors, and interested parties.

Schmidheiny, 66, and de Cartier de Marchienne, are being charged with owning four factories that were riddled with asbestos-containing building materials. Allegedly, the two knew of the asbestos hazards, and failing to warn employees of the presence of a substance which could caused sickness and death. They have been charged with intentionally causing injury.

In the northern Italian city, prosecutors represented over 2,600 former employees of the factories, as well as approximately 300 local residents, who have had some sort of exposure or been otherwise affected by the asbestos.

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that is currently a well-known carcinogen. This fiber consists of long, thin fibrous crystals and may be mixed with other substances in order to resist heat, electricity and chemical damage. Due to these characteristics, asbestos was used in many buildings and other structures throughout the 1900s.

Asbestos, once damaged and the fibers are released into the air, are inhaled and remain lodged in the linings around major organs such as the heart, lungs, and abdomen. Exposure leads to many asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

The company under fire was S.p.A. Genoa. Prosecutors say that its four factories contained asbestos fibers, that they did not have proper ventilation or proper clothing protection regulations in place, and that officials knew of the dangers.

The two businessmen are facing sentencing of up to 13 years in prison if the judge decides to move forward with the proceedings, reported Sergio Bonetto, a lawyer for the victims.

Former employees were joined on Monday by trade unionists—from Italy, Switzerland, France and Belgium—who demanded that the company “stop the massacre.”

Schmidheiny’s attorney, Guido Carlo Allevo called for a fair trial, but said he was “convinced that the judge will make a balanced judgement and will not be affected by banners.”

Schmidheiny was born in St. Gallen and took over his family’s asbestos construction materials firm in his late 20s.