MONTREAL - Canada's asbestos industry said it had nothing to fear Monday after two men were criminally convicted in more than 2,000 asbestos-related deaths in Italy.
Construction-firm executives Jean-Louise de Cartier of Belgium and Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland were each handed 16-year prison sentences for negligence following a trial that officials called historic.
A representative for Canada's controversial asbestos sector said he doesn't think similar criminal charges could ever be laid against industry players here.
"I personally believe that there is no possibility," said Guy Versailles, a spokesman for Montreal asbestos salesman Baljit Chadha and Quebec's Jeffrey Mine.
Versailles said if it were possible, such charges likely would already have been filed against people in a highly scrutinized industry that has lost many civil lawsuits for past unsafe practices of the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
"The victims and the lawyers have been so persistent on this — for decades — milking the industry dry that anything they could do and anything governments could do would have been done," he said Monday following the verdict in Italy.
"I think it's as simple as that."
Versailles insists the embattled Canadian industry, which is now only located in central Quebec, cleaned up its act long ago. The industry says the fibrous mineral is safe when handled in a secure manner — a claim industry critics dispute.
But one legal expert said similar criminal charges could be possible in Canada. He added, however, that it might be difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction.
Ed Ratushny, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said executives can be charged in Canada with negligence for employee injuries and deaths.
As an example, Ratushny cited the 1992 Westray coal-mine explosion in Nova Scotia, which killed 26 miners. Criminal charges were laid against the company and a few of its managers, but they were stayed after a trial.
He said it's hard to make a direct link between actions taken by industry executives and asbestos exposure, which often takes a long time to develop into a related illness.
Ratushny noted that just because lawyers have won civil lawsuits against the Canadian asbestos industry doesn't guarantee criminal charges could also be laid.
"There's a higher burden of proof in a criminal case — you need proof beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
Canada has faced mounting opposition from health critics at home and abroad over its production and export of the carcinogenic material to poorer countries.
The debate over health concerns has undermined the reputation of Canada's once-mighty asbestos industry, which is now hoping to secure a $58-million bank-loan guarantee from the Quebec government to survive.
The asbestos sector has made many headlines in Canada, as it did in Italy during the two-year trial of de Cartier and Schmidheiny.
Prosecutors said the men, both key shareholders in the Swiss construction firm Eternit, failed to stop asbestos fibres at factories in the northern Italy from spreading across the region.
The defendants, who were tried in absentia, had denied wrongdoing.
Italian Health Minister Renato Balduzzi hailed the verdict by the Turin court as "without exaggeration, truly historic," noting that it came after a long battle for justice.
Hundreds of people, many of them who had lost parents or spouses to asbestos-linked diseases, crowded into the courtroom and two nearby halls for the verdict. When the convictions were announced, some of the spectators wept.
Two hours after announcing the convictions, Judge Giuseppe Casalbore was still reading the court’s complete verdict, which included awards of monetary damages from civil lawsuits from some 6,300 victims or their relatives who alleged that loved ones either died or were left ill from asbestos.
An Italian news agency, reporting from the courthouse, said the defendants were ordered to pay (euro) 25 million ($32.5 million) to the town of Casale Monferrato, where one of the factories was located and where asbestos was used in road construction, and (euro) 20 million ($26 million) to the Piedmont region.
Opponents of Canada's asbestos industry applauded the Italian verdict.
New Democrat MP Pat Martin, a former asbestos miner and longtime critic of the industry, was among those emboldened by the convictions.
"The asbestos industry should be served notice that we are coming for them and it would do my heart good to see somebody led away in handcuffs for all the misery that they've caused over the years," he said Monday.
- With files from Associated Press