MILAN (Reuters) - A billionaire Swiss industrialist convicted for his part in Italy’s biggest asbestos scandal had his jail sentence lengthened to 18 years on Monday, in a ruling campaigners said would set a precedent for work-safety lawsuits.
Stephan Schmidheiny, found guilty of negligence that led to more than 2,000 asbestos-related deaths, was also ordered to pay millions of euros in damages to local authorities, victims and their families by an appeals court in Turin.
The former owner of Swiss building material maker Eternit was found guilty in February last year and originally sentenced to 16 years in prison and ordered to pay other damages.
He was not immediately sent to jail - prison sentences in Italy are often not enforced until appeals processes, which can take years, are exhausted
The 65-year-old was not in court when the appeals judges rejected his appeal against the sentence and extended it on Monday.
A spokesman based in Zurich said the industrialist would now take his case to Italy’s top appeals court and dismissed the ruling as “scandalous” and “absurd”.
The Turin court also dropped charges against Belgian Eternit shareholder and former company executive Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, who died on May 21 aged 91.
Relatives of the victims and hundreds of others filled the courthouse, some holding banners reading: “Eternit: Justice!”
“This verdict encourages the battle by victims and their families for a world without asbestos and without that thirst for profits that sacrifice human lives,” victims’ association Osservatorio Nazionale Amianto said.
Prosecutors had said Schmidheiny intentionally failed to install measures to prevent workers’ health being affected by asbestos at Eternit’s Italian plants, which closed in 1986.
More than 6,000 people - including former employees and residents of the four towns where the plants were located - are seeking damages in the case.
Compensation awarded by the court included 20 million euros to the Piedmont region and 31 million euros to the Casale Monferrato town hall where Eternit had its main Italian plant.
Prosecutors said the lack of safety measures led to the deaths of more than 2,000 people, mostly from cancer triggered by contact with asbestos, and thousands of other cases of chronic pulmonary disease, tumours and other illnesses over the past four decades.
They affected workers and residents of Casale Monferrato and Cavagnolo, two hill towns near Turin; the village of Rubiera in northern Italy; and the seaside town of Bagnoli, outside Naples.
Asbestos fibres became popular from the late 19th century onwards as a way to reinforce cement, often for roofing and cladding, as well as adding sound absorption and heat resistance.
Asbestos is now banned from building materials in much of the West, but is still being used as insulation in developing countries. The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause lung inflammation and cancer, and symptoms do not tend to appear for many years.
Reporting By Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Andrew Heavens