Asbestos Victims Request for Yale to Revoke Honorary Degree of Swiss Billionaire Linked to Asbestos Deaths
Stephan Schmidheiny is a Swiss billionaire who was born into the Swiss industrial empire, Eternit Switzerland. In 1976, at age 29, Stephan Schmidheiny took over leadership of the family business. At the time, Eternit Switzerland was a large manufacturer of asbestos-containing cement products with plants located throughout Europe and Latin America.
In addition to his work as leader of Eternit Switzerland, Stephan Schmidheiny has done significant work in the field of sustainable development. Amongst his other accomplishments, in 1992, he was the chief advisor for business and industry at the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. In addition, he helped to start the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. These accomplishments led Yale University to grant to him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for Environmental Stewardship in 1996.
Asbestos victims and their families have recently started to voice protest against Stephan Schmidheiny’s honorary degree. In particular, a group of victims from Casale Monferrato, Italy, known as Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association (AFEVA) has taken steps to try and have Yale revoke Mr. Schmidheiny’s degree.
Attorney Chris Meisenkothen of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen is representing the AFEVA victims and has written a letter to Yale on their behalf.
At issue, specifically, in AFEVA’s petition to Yale are Eternit’s four factories in Italy that closed in the late 1980’s. The largest of these plants was located in Casale Monferrato, Italy.
As late as 1981, the Eternit plant in Casale Monferrato was still using 15,000 tons of asbestos annually. The resulting contamination from asbestos at the plant has led to more than 2000 asbestos-related deaths in the region. A report from Maule in 20071 found the existence of the asbestos factory in Casale Monferrato more than quintupled the risk for malignant mesothelioma among non-occupationally exposed residents who lived as far as 11 kilometers away from the factory.
AFEVA is not alone in this debate against Stephan Schmidheiny. In fact, the Swiss billionaire has been charged by the Italian courts with creating an environmental disaster, as well as failing to take precautionary measures to prevent the spread of asbestos fibers and dust.
The trial against Schmidheiny, and the Belgian baron, Jean Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier De Marchienee, began in April of 2009. The initial lawsuit included 5000 claimants. However, Mr. Marchienee died in May of 2013 and the case against him was dismissed.
However, in June of 2012, a court in Italy found Stephan Schmidheiny guilty of causing the deaths of thousands of Italian citizens and sentenced him to 16 years in prison. In 2013, the Turin Court of Appeals not only affirmed this decision, they increased the sentence by two years.
Stephan Schmidheiny was not present at the trial or the appeal. He was tried in absentia and he is currently a free man. In Italy, sentences are only considered final after two levels of appeals are exhausted. Mr. Schmidheiny, therefore, intends to take his case to a higher appeal court.
In determining his guilt in this matter, the Italian court stated that Stephan Schmidheiny–
“Mr. Schmidheiny ‘personally took part in the plan aimed at promoting misinformation’ and that ‘[t]he aim was—to keep public opinion (workers, trade unionists, reporters, politicians and asbestos cement product—consumers) in the dark as to the great danger linked to inhaling the fibers of the mineral being processed in—the plant.”
(AFEVA Letter, citing “Trial Court Decision,” page 509, letter attached in full with references).
In addition to AFEVA’s letter to Yale asking that the University revoke Mr. Schmidheiny’s honorary degree, Atty. Meisenkothen’s letter calls for:
- the opportunity to address the Yale Corporation;
- a list of donations made to Yale by Stephan Schmidheiny, his family, the Eternit company and/or his foundation, Avina; and
- copies of the meeting minutes from the 1990s concerning the decision to award the degree and a complete transcript of the 1996 commencement program that awarded Mr. Schmidheiny the honorary degree.
Holding Mr. Schmidheiny accountable would be a great victory for asbestos victims and their families in Casale Monferrato and around the world.
- 1. MM Maule et al., ‘Modeling Mesothelioma Risk Associated with Environmental Asbestos Exposure, Environ Health Perspect. 115:1066-1071 (2007)
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