In 2009 a ground breaking trial began in Italy. The Eternit trial was one of the largest environmental cases in Europe to be taken to Court. It involved two European executives, Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss billionaire and former owner of Eternit Genova and Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, a Belgian baron, a former executive and major shareholder of the company.

Eternit Genova had four factories in Italy and was involved in the production of Eternit, a roofing and panelling material which was made with a mixture of cement and asbestos. According to Schmidheiny’s official biography he stopped the company from using asbestos in 1986.

The trial was a mass civil action in which more than 6,000 people were seeking damages. The Claimants were made up of former employees and family members, along with local residents who had suffered environmental exposure to asbestos from the factories. It concluded in October 2012 with both men being found guilty of intentionally refusing to install measures that would have prevented workers from being exposed to asbestos. The men were sentenced to 16 years in prison which was later increased to 18 years, they were also ordered to pay millions of Euros in fines.

The decision was appealed against and this month the Italian Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Defendants, dropping all charges against Schmidheiny and Marchienne, who passed away in May of this year aged 91. The basis of the ruling was that the Statute of Limitations had passed.

The Italian Statute of Limitations states that apart from felonies which are punishable by life imprisonment, a criminal case must be brought within a period of time equalling the maximum penalty provided for it by law. The definitive sentence in the case must be handed down before this period expires.


In this case, the Eternit company left Italy 25 years ago. The maximum prison sentence for the charges was 12 years however additional years were added on the grounds that asbestos has a latency period which means further people who were exposed to asbestos by the company may not be diagnosed with an asbestos condition for a number of years to come. If the 1986 date of the use of asbestos being ceased is correct, this would mean that the case would have had to have been completed by 1998 at the latest.

The appeal decision was met with shouts of ‘Shame, shame’ by those who attended, many of which were relatives of victims of the asbestos exposure. Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi commented on the case saying that a matter such as the Eternit case either “isn’t a crime, or if it is a crime but time-barred that means its necessary to change the rules regarding the Statute of Limitations.” He went on to add that “It’s not possible that in some instances there are rules that, with time, leapfrog the demands of justice – because there are no time limits on pain and grief.”

A statement released by Schmidheiny’s defence stated,

“The Supreme Court’s ruling proves that the Eternit trial in Turin repeatedly and massively violated both the right to a fair trial pursuant to Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as well as the principle of ‘nullapoena sine lege’ (‘no punishment without law’) pursuant to Article 7 ECHR.”

There do not appear to be any planned changes to the criminal law in Italy but this case may assist a change for civil law.

It is not clear whether this is the end of the road for the Eternit case as Schmidheiny’s legal team noted that “the Turin public prosecutor’s office is known to be conducting further criminal investigations”.

Main Image credit: “Roma 2011 08 07 Palazzo di Giustizia” by Blackcat – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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