The Interminable Wait for Asbestos Justice in France
No sooner were French asbestos victims hailing a judicial breakthrough in their 25-year-old campaign to hold employers, executives and managers to account for deadly workplace exposures, than another legal stratagem was launched which will, at the very least, delay criminal proceedings for another two years.
The facts are these. A judgment handed down on January 20, 2021 by the investigative chamber of the Paris Court of Appeal reversed a July 2019 verdict that had dismissed charges against officials from Everite, a former asbestos company and a subsidiary of the Saint-Gobain group, over occupational deaths caused by exposures to asbestos. According to French litigation experts, the legal and scientific reasoning of the 2021 ruling is applicable to cases that remain pending against personnel from other asbestos companies and government agencies. The Courts findings as detailed in its 30+ page judgment were categorical:
Each successive leader may have been responsible for the exposure of employees to asbestos fibers. The fact that several people were able to contribute to the realization of the attack on the life or the physical integrity of the victims does not present any difficulty in the field of criminal responsibility and does not lead to the recognition of a collective responsibility contrary to the fundamental principles of criminal law since it is the indivisibility of the acts in question which mutually serve as a support and converge towards a unity of realization, so that [the subject of] each possible indictment can only be reproached for his own act. Thus, it is up to the examining magistrates to continue the information [search] by looking for any serious or concordant clues against a leader or persons benefiting from delegations of power. 1
At the heart of this case were the deaths of twin brothers Angelo and Gilbert Giaretta, whose widow Madeleine was one of the claimants in the lawsuit. The brothers had worked at the Everite asbestos-cement factory in Dammarie-lès-Lys, in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris, from 1954 to 1991.2 Gilbert died of the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma in 2002 and Angelo in 2004. On October 16, 2020, the Giaretta family contested a lower courts dismissal of charges against Everite officials during a hearing at the Court of Appeal, alleging that evidence submitted by scientific experts had been misconstrued and misunderstood. In its judgment three months later, the Court of Appeal agreed with their arguments; based on the experts report, the Court accepted that toxic exposures were not single, isolated incidents but a process of accumulation of fibers and that the entire period of exposure contributed to the causation of illnesses contracted. By implication, therefore, each manager could be held to account for failing to have prevented toxic workplace exposures from occurring. As a result of the Court of Appeals decision, investigating magistrates have been instructed to resume proceedings in the Giarettas case against Everite officials, with a view to a possible indictment of several company personnel.
Gilbert Giarettas widow Madeleine welcomed the January 21 Court of Appeal decision saying: This news gives us hope for a [criminal] trial. A January 23 press release issued by the [French] Association for the Defence of Asbestos Victims (ANDEVA) echoed her renewed optimism:
The conditions are now in place for a criminal asbestos trial to take place Even if asbestos victims can congratulate themselves on this victory which gives them hope that an asbestos trial can finally take place, they still deplore the errors of the investigating judges on facts known for decades, which lost three more years on a file that had been open for a quarter of a century.3
Alas, ANDEVAs petition to the Attorney General at the Paris Court of Appeal Ms. Catherine Champrenault urging her to accept the decision of the Court of Appeal fell on deaf ears. No sooner had the print dried on the January 20 judgment, than news was circulating that an appeal had been lodged by Champrenault to the Court of Cassation (Frances Supreme Court).4 Adding insult to injury, she also announced that whilst the appeal to the Court of Cassation was pending, she intended to request an order suspending, for the time being, hearings on all other major asbestos cases before the Court of Appeal. Whatever the final outcome of the appeal to the Court of Cassation, it will be at least two more years before any criminal proceedings can be launched. ANDEVA has appealed to François Molins, Attorney General at the Court of Cassation, to intervene.5
February 2, 2021
1 Radisson, L. Procès pénal de l'amiante: la justice souffle le chaud et le froid [Asbestos criminal trial: justice blows hot and cold]. January 28, 2021.
2 Amiante. Reprise de lenqute sur lentreprise Everite, une première en France [Asbestos. Resumption of the investigation into the company Everite, a first in France]. January 22, 2021.
3 Association Nationale de Defense des Victimes de lAmiante [French National Association for the Defence of Victims of Asbestos (ANDEVA)]. Rebondissement dans le Dossier Penal de lAmiante [Rebound of the Asbestos Criminal File]. January 22, 2021.
4 Collett, B. Une nouvelle épreuve pour les victimes du scandale de lamiante [A new ordeal for the victims of the asbestos scandal]. January 28, 2021.
5 Radisson, L. Procès pénal de l'amiante: la justice souffle le chaud et le froid [Asbestos criminal trial: justice blows hot and cold]. January 28, 2021.