Eternit and asbestos are in the news again in Italy as the Eternit trials move forward. Set out below is the full text of this article which picks up from Italian press stories. Note that Italy allows the joinder of criminal and civil claims into one proceeding, a practice exactly opposite of the practice in the United States.  The Italian prosecutor seeks 20 years of jail time for some of the senior executives for recklessly endangering the health of workers at manufacturing plants producing asbestos-containing products.

 

 

 

 

Italian court seeks 20-year terms in asbestos mega-trial

 

Please look to the left under the heading “Eternit” for prior articles on the combined civil and criminal trial in Italy  involving former executives of Eternit. The charges – more or less – are reckless endangerment  of employees via unsafe conditions in facilities manufacturing asbestos-containing products. The coverage this month has been light as only one hearing was held, and apparently was limited to argument on motions. Go here for a summary from advocates for the sick.

Trial is now underway in Italy on combined civil and criminal charges regarding senior corporate officials of Eternit allegedly having recklessly disregarded health risks related to asbestos. The charges and claims involve injuries or premature deaths suffered by about 2.200 employees or former employees. Eternit entities manufactured a range of asbestos-cement products.
A BBC article is here. Swiss articles are here and here.

For prior posts on the topic, look to the left to the topic line for “Eternit.”

News articles here (best one), here and here are out with news from Italy that the criminal and civil trial for the Eternit asbestos defendants is to start December 10, 2009. The date was set after the trial court denied objections by the defendants, including objections to the location of the trial. The trial will not end quickly – Italian trials in some ways move slowly and include a variety of procedures not directly comparable to American trials.

The criminal and civil claims arise from something around 2,500 injuries and deaths alleged to arise from Italian manufacturing operations of the global Eternit businesses. For more background, a prior post here described the criminal and civil claims being pursued in Italy against former officers of Eternit, and includes links to background articles. There are myriad Eternit entities around the world, and they are not all part of one corporate family. However, most have some roots in manufacturing asbestos-cement products.

The claims and attendant publicity are noteworthy for a variety of reasons. One is that the US media now has company with other global media that devote articles, blogs and websites to “asbestos exposure” and “the dangers of asbestos. ” To test the point, try Google searches on “eternit,” “schmidheiny” (the last name of one of the defendants) or “amiante” (asbestos). Publicity and fear tend to lead to increased tort litigation.

Another point is that it is increasingly easy for claimant’s group to disseminate information that may damage corporate reputation in general and reduce the overall enterprise value. Consider, for example, this website that provides a basic account of the Eternit proceedings and seeks to heap shame on Eternit. Considered in the light of the events of the past year, and this type of an event, one can readily grasp why the SEC has made statements to the media and proposed new rules (go here) regarding public disclosure of the board’s role in risk management and the overall corporate risk management strategy.

Ironic the difference a continent can make. In the US, companies usually do not promote their involvement in current or past production of asbestos-containing products. Not so in India, where an online stock analyst item regarding Eternit Eeverst Ltd. lauds the profit in the company’s production of asbestos-cement products. It states:

“The Tatas and the Eternit Group of Belgium set up the pioneer of asbestos fibre products in India, Eternit Everest Ltd . The company is a pioneer in the manufacture of fibre cement roofing products and flat sheets. Eternit enjoys a market share of over 20%. Everest Industries Limited provides you with the world-class building solutions to meet your construction requirements, in the Industrial, Commercial and Residential sectors. Historically, Everest has provided rural shelters by making corrugated roofing sheets available to farmers at a competitive price. The company is poised to capitalize on the opportunities in rural India where various housing and infrastructure initiatives are envisaged by the Government.
Products & Services

Everest offers a complete range of building solutions which includes Ceilings, Walls, Flooring, Cladding, Doors, Roofing and Pre-Engineered Steel Buildings. These are produced at Everest’s state-of-the-art ISO: 14000 certified manufacturing facilities at Kymore, Nashik, Coimbatore, Kolkata and Roorkee. With over 4000 retail points spread across the nation together with the strength of over 1285 highly qualified and experienced engineers, designers and technicians, Everest provides you building solutions that successfully meet the highest standards of quality and durability.

Everest, the second largest player in the roofing industry, manufactures various asbestos and non-asbestos based products like roofing sheets, flats and boards that find application in housing, false ceiling, partitioning, interior etc. The company has embarked on a project to add capacities of non-asbestos products that also demand higher margins. It expects to capture square meter corrugated sheet market in the country. Following the break through in exporting this product in the Sri Lankan market, the company plans to tap the export market as well.
However the company is increasingly looking at international markets to widen its revenue base; it expects exports to increase in the coming years. Everest is actively looking at opportunities in African and European markets (where asbestos is banned) to widen its geographical reach. With the increasing share of exports in its total sales, the operating profit margin of the company will improve, as exports fetch better margins than domestic sales.

Valuations

At current market price, stock is trading at 7.82 P/E multiple of its FY2010 estimated earnings. We recommend investors to buy “Everest industries Limited” with medium to long term investment horizon.”

A Swiss media article describes significant media and partisan attention focused on the first day of trial in an asbestos-related criminal prosecution of former owners and managers of Eternit businesses that for decades were global manufacturers of asbestos-cement board, among many asbestos products. Hundreds of people are said to have gathered for the first day of the prosecution that involves allegedly knowing or reckless industrial hygiene decisions said to have resulted in premature deaths and injuries to over 2,500 manufacturing plant employees and local residents. The alleged misdeeds of Eternit have been widely chronicled over the years while this prosecution effort was ongoing. Informative articles are available here and here , and an article I wrote back in 2004 provides some context for EU businesses facing asbestso litigation’s expansion into Europe.

Prosecutions of this sort raise a wide-range of issues. From the American perspective, perhaps the most striking aspect is that Italian law expressly allows trial that combine criminal and civil claims, thus giving the defendants significant risks that would not exist in a civil trial in the US. Italian law also allows the judge to reduce sentences to some degree if compensation is paid to victims. This trial will not end quickly – Italian criminal trials move slowly and include a variety of procedures not directly comparable to American criminal trials.

What’s the likley outcome? My assumption/prediction is that this trial ultimately will result in Eternit entities and the individual defendants offering to plead guilty subject to a proviso limiting their sentences in return for creation of a significant private fund/trust that will pay money to claimants and that will make some payments to Italian government agencies such as INAIL to offset payments that have paid medical expenses for victims. I strongly suspect the deal will not be as cushy for the defendants as was the tobacco deal cut in the United States.