In a dramatic appeal against a sentencing decision, the Italian Supreme Court has just overturned a verdict in one of Europe’s biggest mesothelioma claim cases and dropped all charges against the defendants. Interest in the case and the relevancy for all mesothelioma sufferers and their families who pursue former employers for an original exposure to asbestos are the long time periods involved.

According to the Italian Statute of Limitations, a criminal case must be brought within a period of time equalling the maximum penalty, as provided by law, and a sentence handed out before the period expires. In Italy, as in Britain, the first task in a mesothelioma claim is usually to trace an original employer / insurer who may no longer be in business.

Extent of employer liability has often been a key challenge

A key difficulty has always been the extremely long time that elapses from the initial period of alleged exposure to asbestos until the appearance of asbestosis symptoms. In Britain, there is a statutory time limit of three years from a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma within which to make a claim for mesothelioma compensation.

Once traced, a defendant may decide to vigorously contest the extent of their liability or appeal a judge’s verdict with subsequent verdicts overturned by different appeal judges. Establishing a cause of a victim’s mesothelioma as being the direct result of exposure to asbestos at a specific work location and the extent of employer liability has often been a key challenge.

Defendants refused to put measures into place

However, in the present case, the defendants were respectively the former owner and an executive shareholder of a company with four factories across Italy, which up until 1986, manufactured roofing and panelling material from a mixture of cement and asbestos. In Italy, as well as in the UK, despite the increased asbestos awareness to the deadly health risks and the decline in use, asbestos was only officially banned by EU directive in January 2005.

The trial, which began in 2009, involved civil action being brought by more than 6,000 former employees and family members, and local community residents who claimed environmental exposure had caused their mesothelioma. At the conclusion of the trial in 2012, both the defendants were found guilty of deliberately refusing to put measures into place that would have prevented the workforce from being exposed to asbestos. They were sentenced to 16 years in prison, as well as being ordered to pay a hefty multi-million Euro fine.

Consequence of the “latency” period

At the recent 2014 appeal, the original verdict was overturned because the company had left Italy 25 years previously and also because the maximum prison sentence allowable for the charges against the defendants was 12 years. The original tariff has been increased to 16 years “on the grounds of latency”, i.e. the condition has the potential to develop over an extended period – between 15 to 50 years or more.

However, at the appeal, it was ruled that as a consequence of the “latency” period, the additional victims of asbestos exposure by the company were not likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma or an asbestos-related disease for a subsequent and significant number of years into the future. Using the 1986 date when the company’s use of asbestos ceased as a ‘claim cut-off point’, the court said that the case would need to be completed by 1998 at the latest for the maximum sentence to be served by 2014. Currently, there are no reports of whether a further appeal is to be made by the many thousands of undoubtedly, disappointed claimants.

In Britain, there have been a number of mesothelioma cases contested on the basis of when the ‘limitation period’ begins. It was only relatively recently that a court decided that the period began not from the actual time during which a victim claims to have been exposed to asbestos, but from when symptoms first appeared or the disease is diagnosed and causally linked to the original asbestos exposure.