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Reportage. Dozens of workers died after their managers knowingly submitted them to cancer-causing asbestos. Rights groups are protesting: “This is class justice.”

‘Class justice’ after more executives acquitted in asbestos deaths

Yet another court has acquitted those charged in the deaths of asbestos victims. On Thursday, the Court of Milan handed a not guilty verdict to eight former Breda Termomeccanica – Ansaldo executives charged with manslaughter in the deaths of 10 workers. According to the prosecution, they had died from exposure to asbestos at their plant in Milan, located on Viale Sarca, between 1970 and 1985.

The acquittal is in line with recent verdicts in Milan for similar cases. In May, the court acquitted Paolo Cantarella and Giorgio Garuzzo (former leader of Fiati Auto) for the deaths of 10 workers at the Alfa Romeo plant in Arese. In February, the Court of Appeal acquitted four former Enel managers for the deaths of eight workers at the Turbigo power plant. And last November, the appeal judges acquitted 11 Pirelli managers, who had been convicted in the first degree for the deaths of about 20 workers active during the 1970s and ‘80s.

Especially on appeal cases, the decisions of the fifth section of the Milan Palace of Justice are leading to the acquittals. Judge Manuela Cannavale ruled in the grounds of a previous trial: “The claims to identify a person responsible for these tragic deaths did not fall on deaf ears, but the collective tragedy, which unfortunately will reach its peak in 10 years, cannot and should not be resolved with penal actions.” And again: “It is not right to raise the expectations of the relatives of the victims if they cannot be met.”

In contrast with current Milanese jurisprudence, IAEA and Democratic Medicine, two associations on the front lines of assisting the families of asbestos victims, say the Supreme Court should provide other guidelines. Especially if, as noted by prosecutor Nicola Balice in the last trial, there had been grossly negligent conduct by the accused “who knew they were putting workers at risk but did not care about it until 1985.”

Certainly, since the 1960s, medical science has sanctioned the danger of the material. But only in 1991, after a deplorable delay, the exposure limit value was set (to the extent of 0.6 fibers per cubic centimeter for chrysotile and 0.2 fibers per cubic centimeter for other varieties of asbestos). In the following year, 1992, Law 257/92 introduced the ban on building with asbestos-containing materials.

In order to prevent, or at least substantially reduce, the possibility of a slaughter, the companies only needed to install robust enough ventilation systems and provide dust masks with appropriate filters. Instead, industrial asbestos cost an average of 1,500 lives a year, as reported on the national mesothelioma registry.

So on Thursday, the families and friends of workers present in the courtroom, including the spokesman for the committee for the defense of workplace health, Michele Michelino, protested loudly. “The law is not equal for all,” he said. “This is class justice.”

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