Landmark Jail Sentence for Swiss Asbestos Magnate 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

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They had waited for hours. The verdict of the Court of Assizes in Novara, Italy was scheduled to be delivered on June 7, 2023. After decades of research and multiple legal proceedings in diverse jurisdictions,1 would today be the day when the call for justice by the asbestos victims from Casale Monferrato finally be answered?2

There had been defeats as well as victories in the battle to hold 73-year old Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny to account for his role in the causation of the epidemic of asbestos-related cancers and diseases which had killed thousands of Italians.3 The stamina and fortitude exhibited by the injured, the bereaved families, their legal advisors and supporters were formidable. Now, after 41 hearings over two years, the world would learn whether Schmidheiny was guilty of the wilful murder of 392 people – 63 former Eternit factory workers and 329 members of the public – from Casale Monferrato.4


Stylized image of the Casale Monferrato Eternit plant in the 1920s. AFeVA archive.

Some of those in the Court had been waiting since 8 a.m., some had been waiting for 40 years; would their patience be rewarded? At 6:47 p.m., after seven and a quarter hours in closed session, President of Novara’s Court of Assizes Gianfranco Pezone delivered the judgment. As everyone in the courtroom stood to attention, Pezone read out the name of each of the 392 victims with a voice “broken by tension and fatigue [which] affected the silence of the courtroom crowded with magistrates, lawyers, family members, activists, journalists (Italian and foreign) and students...”5 Describing the delivery of the verdict, journalist, mesothelioma widow and Casalese Silvana Mossano noted that although Pezone's voice “betrayed weariness,” he spoke without pause for 16 minutes. By 19:02, the hearing was over.

The regional court found that Schmidheiny, who had taken over the leadership of the Swiss Eternit Group in 1976 aged 29, was guilty of the aggravated manslaughter of 147 residents and factory workers from Casale Monferrato who had died as a result of exposure to Eternit’s asbestos fibers.6 He received a 12-year prison sentence.7 Whilst, the Court recognized the right of civil parties to claim compensation in separate civil cases, it also awarded provisional damages as follows: €50 million (m) (US$53.8m) to the town of Casale Monferrato, €30m (US$32.3m) to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, €500,000 (US$538,000) to the Italian Association of Asbestos Victims and Families (Associazione famigliari e vittime amianto [AFeVA]), €500,000 to lawyer Laura D'Amico and smaller sums to scores of named plaintiffs and organizations.8 The industrialist was also banned from holding public office for five years.

Unsurprisingly Schmidheiny’s lawyers were unhappy with the ruling, labelling the conviction a “miscarriage of justice,” and saying they would appeal. Speaking on behalf of the Casale Monferrato asbestos victims’ association, AFeVA President Giuliana Busto said:

“We consider ourselves moderately satisfied even with the awareness that the fight is not over as the lawyers have already announced the appeal. But yesterday, in the courtroom, the word ‘guilty’ repeated several times, in an atmosphere of emotional tension, finally gave meaning to our struggle and to these 41 hearings lived with moments that were not always easy, especially when we heard considerations that dismantled the diagnosis of mesothelioma or that this pathology, in Casale, was diagnosed too easily. The 392 names of the victims, pronounced one by one, caused the eyes of those present, family and friends, to fill with tears in the memory of a face, a smile, a piece of life. 392 is not just a number: it's people, dreams, hopes... an interrupted future.” 9

Commenting on the June 7th ruling, Public Prosecutor Gianfranco Colace – who had called for life imprisonment for Schmidheiny – said:

“Now we know that the person responsible is the defendant whom we brought to trial. We are satisfied with our work, we had brought an impressive amount of evidence, we are convinced that the criteria that the supreme court with the Thyssen case had stipulated to distinguish between possible wilful misconduct and conscious guilt were met in this case… we will carefully read the reasons and evaluate whether to appeal because I believe it is a case that deserves to be further examined. In Casale Monferrato 50 people get sick every year and it's not over yet either from a health or a judicial point of view.”10

In a June 9, 2023 article in La Stampa, renowned Italian jurist Gian Carlo Caselli wrote that the Novara sentence was:

“a milestone on the path towards a new sensitivity and culture, in terms of investigative-judicial protection, of those fundamental rights of citizens: safety at work and health.”11

The June 7th verdict follows convictions in 2019 in Turin and 2022 in Naples, both of which are being appealed by Schmidheiny’s legal team. The industrialist, who has never appeared in person at any of the Italian trials, has said that the legal actions against him were tantamount to “state torture” by a “failed state.” Being the target of this sustained legal vendetta had, he said, injured his mental health and forced him to find solace in meditation to deal with “his hatred of Italians.” In 2020, he told journalists that he had “no intention of seeing an Italian prison from the inside.”12 In 2023, he remains unrepentant of the human tragedies he caused and the environmental damage he wreaked.

June 15, 2023


1 Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial. 2012.

2 Asbestos at Eternit – The Schmidheiny case. June 8, 2023.
Kazan-Allen, L. Déjà Vu: Stephan Schmidheiny in the Dock. June 15, 2021.

3 Schmidheiny managed the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Casale Monferrato from 1976 to 1986, the year the factory was closed. Eternit never remediated the buildings, the polluted river or dumpsites.

4 Mossano, S. Eternit Bis: verdetto penale il 7 giugno. Ma non è finita: bisogna puntare alla «giustizia riparativa» Eternit Bis: criminal verdict on 7 June. But that's not all: we need to aim for “restorative justice”]. June 4, 2023.

5 Mossano, S. Eternit Bis, la lunga attesa del verdetto. E ora, signor Schmidheiny, compri una casa farmaceutica [Eternit Bis, the long wait for the verdict. And now, Mr. Schmidheiny, you buy a pharmaceutical company]. June 10, 2023.

6 Iato, B. Schmidheiny condannato per l'omicidio di 146 casalesi. Ecco i loro nomi [Schmidheiny convicted of the murder of 146 Casalesi. Here are their names]. June 13, 2023.

7 Young, S. Why Swiss Billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny Was Found Guilty Of Asbestos Deaths In An Italian Court – And What Will Happen Next. June 10, 2023.

8 Mossano, S. Eternit Bis, la lunga attesa del verdetto. E ora, signor Schmidheiny, compri una casa farmaceutica [Eternit Bis, the long wait for the verdict. And now, Mr. Schmidheiny, you buy a pharmaceutical company]. June 10, 2023.

9 AFeVA. Sentenza Processo Eternit, 7 giugno 2023 [Judgment in the Eternit Process Trial, 7 June 2023]. June 8, 2023.

10 Processo Eternit bis, Schmidheiny condannato a 12 anni per omicidio colposo: quasi 100 milioni di risarcimento per le parti civili [Eternit bis trial, Schmidheiny sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter: almost 100 million in compensation for the civil parties]. June 7, 2023.

11 Processo Eternit bis, Caselli: “Sentenza fondamentale, una pietra miliare sulla strada per i diritti” [Eternit bis trial, Caselli: “Fundamental sentence, a milestone on the road to rights”]. June 10, 2023.

12 Pegoraro, A. Mr Eternit ora insulta l'Italia: "Un Paese fallito, io vi odio" [Mr Eternit now insults Italy: “A failed country, I hate you”]. Jan 24, 2020.



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