An organization representing victims of asbestos exposure was appalled after last year’s conviction in an Italian court of a Swiss billionaire accused of creating an environmental disaster that led to thousands of people dying from asbestos-related illnesses.

The organization was so angry it hired a Connecticut lawyer to turn urge Yale University to rescind an honorary degree the Ivy League school had given to the billionaire, Stephan Schmidheiny, in 1996. After more than two months, Yale finally responded to the request—and it didn’t offer the answer the group wanted to hear.

Though appeals are pending in Italian court, Schmidheiny may one day serve at least 16 years in prison for his part in the public health tragedy. But at least he’ll get to keep his honorary degree from Yale.

In a letter to the Italy-based Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association, school officials said in December that they would not rescind Schmidheiny’s honorary degree.

“As you know, the revocation of an honorary degree would be unprecedented at Yale, and we do not believe that the events subsequent to the award of the degree call into question the essential information upon which [Yale] acted,” wrote Kimberly Goff-Crews, secretary and vice-president for student life at Yale.

The letter was sent to Christopher Meisenkothen of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen in New Haven, who has handled asbestos-related litigation for plaintiffs across the U.S. and agreed to represent the Italian victims group pro bono in this matter.

Meisenkothen’s initial five-page letter asking Yale to rescind the honorary degree was sent in early October.

“We’re really very disappointed in Yale’s response,” Meisenkothen told the Law Tribune. “Yale doesn’t address the Italian legal proceedings and the significant historical evidence that was revealed during the trial. I think Yale is snubbing the Italian system and tacitly joining Schmidheiny’s defenders who have attacked the Italian justice system.”

Meisenkothen noted that there is no viable legal action the group can take against Yale. However, he said the Italian group is pursuing other options.

“We’re optimistic that some interested Yale professors may also speak out soon, and we’re talking with some state and national labor and union groups to try to rally some additional support,” Meisenkothen said.

A trial court in Italy sentenced Schmidheiny to 16 years in prison for causing 2,000-plus deaths in the 36,000-person town of Casale Monferrato, in northern Italy. Schmidheiny was chief executive officer of Eternit, an asbestos-cement company. One of Eternit’s manufacturing plants was located in the town, and prosecutors said Schmidheiny was grossly negligent for allowing condition that exposed Eternit’s workers and town residents to asbestos.

This past summer, an appeals court in Turin, Italy, upheld the conviction and increased the sentence to 18 years. Schmidheiny, 65, is appealing to the country’s highest court. He has yet to serve any prison time.

Yale had given Schmidheiny the honorary degree for his “advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development.”

“At the time that the Yale Corporation’s Honorary Degrees Committee made its decision in 1996, it was well known that Eternit had begun making asbestos products in the first decade of the 20th century,” Goff-Crews wrote in Yale’s letter. “It was also well known that Mr. Schmidheiny launched efforts to find alternative products and to move the company away from asbestos production as soon as he gained executive authority at his family’s company. Finally, the committee was aware that Mr. Schmidheiny had chosen to devote himself to crucial environmental issues.”

Meisenkothen said what happened in Italy is one of the more disastrous examples of the harm caused by asbestos, which is linked to a rare cancer called mesothelioma, other forms of cancer and serious lung diseases.

“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 Meisenkothen. “It’s an extremely dangerous mineral that has been responsible for as many as 16 percent 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 many documented cases of mesothelioma in the Italian town involving family members of plant workers as well as people who 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.•