Corporate Executives Sentenced to Prison for Asbestos Deaths: Could it Happen in U.S.?

Friday, February 17, 2012
Stephan Schmidheiny (photo: Avina)
A court in Italy garnered worldwide attention this week when it convicted two wealthy foreign executives of involuntary manslaughter for exposing thousands of people to asbestos.
 
The defendants, billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland, former owner of the Eternit conglomerate, and Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne of Belgium, a major shareholder in the firm, were sentenced to 16 years in prison after the court concluded the men were responsible for the deaths of at least 3,000 people.
 
The victims were either workers at four Italian asbestos cement factories or residents who lived near the plants. Asbestos fibers can cause deadly diseases, such as mesothelioma, a cancer that attacks the lungs or abdomen.
 
Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Center for Public Integrity, “If a worker were to shoot his boss we would call it murder, but when the boss kills the worker with poison slowly over the years we call it a job.”
 
Schmidheiny’s lawyers say their client plans to appeal the conviction.
 
Italy banned asbestos in 1992, but it has not been banned in the United States, which imports about 1,000 metric tons of asbestos each year.
 
The idea of holding executives responsible for the harm done by the corporations they lead is considered a novel concept in the United States. As just one example, in 2010 Merck agreed to make payments to the families of 3,468 people who died of heart attacks or strokes as a result of using the painkiller Vioxx. More than three years before Merck pulled Vioxx from the market, research had shown that it led to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Merck’s CEO at the time of the transgressions, Raymond Gilmartin, was never charged with a criminal offense. In fact, he is currently an adjunct professor at Harvard Business School, teaching a new generation of corporate executive wannabes how to run a business. His official Harvard biography lists two of his topics of interest as “corporate social responsibility” and “ethics.”
-David Wallechinsky, Noel Brinkerhoff
 
To Learn More:
Asbestos Deaths Bring 16-Year Sentence (by Jim Morris, iWatch News)
Dangers in the Dust (Center for Public Integrity)

Merck Pays $950 Million for Vioxx Illegal Marketing and Dangers…But No Jail Time  (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov) 

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