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Workstyle: Smoking, drugs and alcohol

Passive smoke death: Employers convicted, jailed [2 July 2002]

Two managers of the Paribas Bank in Milan, Italy have been convicted of criminal manslaughter in the death of a female bank employee who suffered a fatal asthma attack from workplace exposure to secondhand smoke. They were sentenced to jail and fined 50,000 Euros, reported the Italian news agency, La Stampa. This criminal court decision opens the door for a civil wrongful death lawsuit by the employee's family to recover damages for causing her death by smoke.

Monica C. was 35 years old, married, and had a 10 year old child. She suffered from "poliallergic asthma", which was known to her employer. Her first job at the bank was in an office where everything was fine. Then, she was transferred to another area where the problems started. Her husband told journalists "She would tell me that the office was full of cigarette smoke." "She was getting worse every day that passed. Various times, in the months before she died, I had to take her to the emergency room and often, during the night, she had to wake up and inhale her asthma spray." In September of 1999, she suffered a violent asthma attack, was taken to hospital but medications failed to save her.

Monica C. had asked to be relocated out of the situation in which she was working. Along with her requests, she would attach medical certificates that proved her gradual health deterioration. Her requests were ignored, even though the dangers of secondhand smoke have been known for at least a decade. ...

knew or ought to have known...

"This is apparently the first situation in which people were held to be criminally liable for causing the death of someone by subjecting them to secondhand tobacco smoke," says Law Professor John Banzhaf, Executive Director of Action on Smoking and Health (USA). "However, there are a growing number of situations in which employers have been held liable for causing or exacerbating medical problems in non-smokers by forcing them to be subjected to tobacco smoke pollution, so this is simply the next logical extension of the trend", said Prof. Banzhaf.

This important decision a criminal conviction for injury and death from workplace exposure to secondhand smoke will likely be used in Canada and elsewhere as legal precedent. While the convictions were against employers, when others fail in their duty to protect, they open themselves up to civil and criminal prosecution.

No legal right to poison

In a decision of the Supreme Court in Utica, NY, a mother has been prevented from smoking in the airspace of her 13 year old son, Nicholas D. This is not the first time a court has upheld the right to breathe smoke-free. But the decision is extraordinary because Nicholas has no medical condition exacerbated by smoke. In other words, this case establishes the right to not have your current health endangered, or your future health mortgaged, by smoke.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Julian cited scientific evidence on the harmful effects of secondhand smoke and found that exposure is "demonstrably dangerous" and not in the best interests of the child. When authorities and governments fail to protect people, especially the young, court action is necessary.

David Egilman MD MPH
Never Again Consulting
Clinical Associate Professor
Department of Community Health
Brown University
8 North Main Street
Suite 404
Attleboro, Massachusetts 02703
Cell: 508-287-5926
Office: 508-226-5091
Fax:425-699-7033
Web: www.egilman.com
Email: degilman2@yahoo.com

See also the La Stampa article translated into English on the ASH website