ROME (Reuters) - Italy's top court has overturned an 18-year jail sentence for a Swiss billionaire convicted over his role in the country's biggest asbestos scandal, saying too much time had passed since the alleged wrongdoing.
Stephan Schmidheiny was found guilty in 2012 of negligence at his company's Italian factories in the 1970s and 80s, which eventually led to almost 3,000 asbestos-related deaths.
However, in a ruling that stunned relatives of the dead, Italy's highest court annulled the verdict late on Wednesday, saying the statute of limitations had kicked in.
The decision means that the Swiss businessman will also escape having to pay millions of euros in fines and compensation ordered by Italian courts in 2012 and 2013.
Prosecutors in the original trial said Schmidheiny had not taken sufficient measures to protect the health of workers and nearby residents from the asbestos used at the Italian plants of his building material firm Eternit.
The factories had used asbestos in the production of cement. The plants closed in 1986, but workers and local residents continue to suffer the consequences, with Italy's biggest union saying that the latest victim of an asbestos-related disease was only buried on Saturday.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the ruling underscored the need to reform Italy's notoriously snail-paced judicial system. "We need to ensure that trials take less time, and change the statute of limitations," he told RTL 102.5 radio on Thursday.
Schmidheiny had been accused of causing an environmental disaster -- a charge which expires under Italy's statute of limitations. Prosecutors said they were now reviewing other possible legal avenues to bring the case back to court.
Schmidheiny's spokesman called for all legal proceedings to be halted, saying the company had already paid "many tens of millions of euros" in compensation to the victims since 2008.
The company said Schmidheiny had never played an operational role in the management of its Italian activities and said it had only been the major shareholder in the Eternit unit for 10 out of its 80-year history.
According to prosecutors, Eternit's products were used to pave streets and used as roof insulation around its plants in northern and southern Italy, resulting in years of exposure for the unsuspecting local population.
Asbestos became popular from the late 19th century onwards as a way to reinforce cement. But research later revealed that the inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause lung inflammation and cancer. It is now banned in much of the world.
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Crispian Balmer)