In 1996, Yale University awarded Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny an honorary degree for his work as a “green” businessman who used his wealth to fund sustainable development in Latin America and elsewhere.

Seventeen years later, an organization representing victims of asbestos exposure is urging Yale to rescind the degree.

The effort centers around Schmidheiny’s criminal conviction in an Italian court for creating an environmental disaster that killed thousands of people exposed to asbestos. Schmidheiny was chief executive officer of Eternit, an asbestos-cement company.

A trial court in Italy sentenced him last year to 16 years in prison for causing 2,000-plus deaths in the 36,000-person town of Casale Monferrato, Italy, in the country’s Piedmont region. It is there that one of Eternit’s manufacturing plants was located.

This past summer, an appeals court in Turin, Italy, upheld the conviction and increased the sentence to 18 years.

Schmidheiny, who is now 65, is appealing the ruling to the country’s highest court and has not yet served any prison time. In fact, he reportedly did not even appear for the trial.

The Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association, formed in Italy, sought a U.S. lawyer to urge Yale University to rescind the honorary degree to Schmidheiny. They asked Christopher Meisenkothen, of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen in New Haven, to handle the case. Meisenkothen, who has handled asbestos litigation for victims across the U.S., agreed to take on the matter pro bono.

“Yale’s own Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic has long been at the forefront of treating asbestos-exposed workers in Connecticut,” Meisenkothen wrote in a letter to the university. “I have seen Yale’s exceptional work on asbestos-related disease firsthand as many of my firm’s local clients have been treated or seen at the Clinic over the course of the past 30-plus years and several of Yale’s excellent doctors have testified as expert witnesses on behalf of asbestos victims.

“It would certainly be in keeping with Yale’s long and valued tradition of helping asbestos victims if it took another look at Mr. Schmidheiny’s case and revoked the honorary degree that was so clearly unwarranted,” concluded Meinsenkothen.

Meisenkothen sent the five-page letter late last month to all 18 trustees of The Yale Corporation (including Yale President Peter Salovey, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman), the Office of General Counsel, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the President, and Yale’s past president, Richard Levin.

Meisenkothen told the Law Tribune that the only response he’s gotten to the letter thus far is from Levin in an e-mail, who noted that he was no longer president of the school and that he had forwarded his letter along to President Salovey.

A Yale spokesman, Thomas Conroy, said the university did not have a comment about the letter yet, “as it was only received recently.” But in a statement released after Schmidheiny’s conviction but prior to the receipt of Meisenkothen’s letter, the university acknowledged the degree given to the billionaire for his “advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development.”

“The decision to award this degree was made by a committee that considered Mr. Schmidheiny’s full record as a philanthropist who used his wealth to fund sustainable development in Latin America and elsewhere, and a path-breaking international advocate of change in the way businesses address environmental sustainability, as well as a businessman who inherited and dismantled a decades-old family asbestos processing concern,” read the statement.

“Yale does not believe that the ongoing legal proceedings in Italy provide cause to reconsider the judgment made by the committee in 1996. Yale has never revoked an honorary degree, and any decision to do so would have to be made by the Yale Corporation, which is the body that confers degrees. Yale has revoked a degree previously awarded only when there has been academic or other fraud.”

Meisenkothen said this case illustrates one of the more disastrous examples of the harm that asbestos has caused.

“The plant in Casale was still using tons of crocidolite asbestos in 1981, the type of asbestos that had long been recognized as the most potent type for causing mesothelioma,” said Meinsenkothen. “It’s an extremely dangerous mineral that has been responsible for as many as 16 to 18 percent of all deaths in some other occupational groups that worked with it. The scope of the harm caused by the plant in Casale is so widespread that it really stands out as a particularly egregious example of the tragic legacy of asbestos.”

Meisenkothen said there were documented cases of mesothelioma in the Italian town by family members of workers at the manufacturing plant and even people who just lived near the plant. “There are few other locations around the world where so many deaths and so much environmental contamination has been caused by a single source of asbestos,” Meisenkothen said.•