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French employer found guilty of crime in asbestos exposure

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LILLE, France--A French criminal court has convicted a company and a former plant manager of exposing workers to asbestos, in the first ruling in France in which an employer has been found criminally guilty of endangering employees by exposing them to the potentially fatal fibers.

The Lille region criminal court earlier this month fined ALSTOM--a power generator and train manufacturer--the maximum €75,000 ($94,950) for the crime of putting others in danger. ALSTOM, which said it would appeal the decision, was accused of knowing that its now-defunct ALSTOM Power Boilers site in Lys-lez-Lannoy, near Roubaix in northern France, was heavily contaminated with a potentially carcinogenic substance during 1998 to 2001 but did not inform workers or take steps to decontaminate the site.

The court awarded €10,000 ($12,660) to each of 150 ex-employees--none of whom is ill--and sentenced a former site manager, Bernard Gomez, to a nine-month suspended prison sentence, fining him €3,000 ($3,798). It ordered the company to display conviction information at its Paris headquarters for two months and to advertise it in national and Lille-region publications.

Pending ALSTOM and Mr. Gomez's appeals, which have already been lodged, the funds awarded to workers will reportedly go into an escrow account. The appeal could extend the case by one to two years, sources said.

The ruling, based on a 1997 law, marks the first time in France that a court has found a company criminally responsible for endangering employees by exposing them to asbestos.

"This judgment finally makes companies and their managers take note that if they violate labor laws on hygiene and safety they will run major risks," said Jean-Paul Teissonniere, lawyer for the Assn. Nationale de Defense des Victimes de l'Amiante, an asbestos victims group participating in the case.

Mr. Teissonniere noted that it had previously been necessary to wait for asbestos victims' symptoms to appear before they could seek redress. "Now, we don't have to wait for illnesses to show up to pursue the people responsible," said Mr. Teissonniere. "This could certainly affect other cases involving chemical or radiation poisoning or other disasters. We will see convictions that have an immediate dissuasive effect."

During the trial, ex-employees and a government inspector testified that ALSTOM and Mr. Gomez took no precautions on the site until 2001, while the defendants argued that they had. SI-Energie, which purchased the site from ALSTOM in 2001, "had to remove 50,000 tons of asbestos in 2002," said Sylvain Stanesco, who served as secretary of ALSTOM Power Boilers' labor management board, and also as a civil party to the case. SI-Energie closed the site in 2003, laying off all workers.

Mr. Gomez's lawyer, Pierre Cornut-Gentille, said, "We (and ALSTOM's legal team) disagree with almost every line of the judgment, but our main reproach is that the court did not take into account independent scientific testing by two organizations that found no asbestos in the plant atmosphere in 2001."

Announcing its appeal, ALSTOM suggested that high emotions made an objective decision impossible in the case. "ALSTOM's appeal aims to re-establish the reality of events and situations. Several points of application of the law, as argued by the court of Lille, call for fresh examination."

Mr. Stanesco said at least 1,200 workers were exposed to asbestos at the site, of whom 10 have died and 80 are ill from asbestosis. Of the ill, some have received compensation from the court for social security affairs. However, since the law took effect in 1997, these employees, who left the company before 1998, were not eligible to join the current case.

"There are also people who worked for this company and were exposed, but don't know about it yet," said Mr. Stanesco. Contending that ALSTOM refuses to assist the search for these people, he warned that, "now that we have a first condemnation, we can go back and attack ALSTOM on several fronts," including demanding a list of all the employees.