Italian Seismologists Convicted Of Manslaughter For Failure To Correctly Predict Earthquake
Back in May 2011, I noted that an Italian Judge had ruled that a group of seismologists in the country could be charged with manslaughter for failing to provide more accurate warnings of an earthquake that devastated an Italian city in April 2009. Today, that group of scientists was convicted of manslaughter and each man faces the potential of up to six years in prison:
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila.
A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.
Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.
The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.
Many smaller tremors had rattled the area in the months before the quake that destroyed much of the historic centre.
It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.
Lawyers have said that they will appeal against the sentence. As convictions are not definitive until after at least one level of appeal in Italy, it is unlikely any of the defendants will immediately face prison.
The seven – all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – were accused of having provided “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.
In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again, La Repubblica reports.
In the closing statement, the prosecution quoted one of its witnesses, whose father died in the earthquake.
It described how Guido Fioravanti had called his mother at about 11pm on the night of the earthquake – straight after the first tremor.
“I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.”
There’s no doubt that what happened in L’Aquila was a tragedy, and perhaps a more forceful warning would have compelled people to leave sooner. However, we learned during Hurricane Katrina, and indeed during many natural disasters for which we have even better advance warning than a seismologist would of an earthquake, that people don’t always heed even the most dire of warnings. So, we don’t really know that a more forceful warning would have saved many lives. More importantly, though, as a large group of international scientists who have spoken up on behalf of these men has said, earthquakes are inherently unpredictable and it’s only through hindsight that we know that the minor seismic activity that occurred before the quake was the precursor to something far more serious.
As I noted when I first wrote about this, the ultimate result of this Kafkaesque proceeding strikes me as being one that creates a set of incentives for scientists that would ultimately harm the public. At least in a nation like Italy, they now have the incentive to issue the most dire warning possible every time there’s even a remote chance something bad could happen, or they have the incentive to not share information with the public at all. How exactly is that going to save lives the next time a major quake strikes?
Hopefully, this decision gets overturned on appeal.