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.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Natural Disasters, Science & Technology, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James Joyner says:

    They should issue a warning every single day that earthquakes will flatten Italy, killing every man, woman, and child.

  2. legion says:

    In the words of Professor Farnsworth, I don’t want to live on this planet anymore…

  3. Jeremy says:

    Oh. My. God.

    This isn’t an Onion article.

  4. @James Joyner:

    They should probably throw in tsunamis, blizzards, volcanic eruptions, and attacks by gigantic radioactive lizards just to be safe.

  5. Dyre42 says:

    Italy is not a terribly rational place.

  6. How much of this was political pressure? Didn’t this start during the Berlusconi era?

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Italy for decades has been circling the drain. Policies have consequences. Statism is a bitch. And the scary part is that Italy’s decline now is accelerating. Just wait until their banking system collapses and their government bond yields creep up towards double digits. It will get a lot uglier. Imagine Greece but on a much larger scale. And the other PIIGS countries, most notably Spain, are not too far behind.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    Why didn’t Italian officials go after the Pope? He is the one with the pipeline to God, who controls everything. No?

  9. wr says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: ” Policies have consequences. Statism is a bitch.”

    Yes, Tsar Dope, they certainly do. And in this case, the policies are those that result when a nation elects a billionaire to run the country as a piggy bank for his equally wealthy friends, rewriting the laws to make the rich and powerful even more untouchable than previously, slashing taxes on the superwealthy, and generally turning a democracy into a plutocracy.

    Which is astonishingly exactly the course you want this country to take.

    Not that you’ll ever address this, since answering a single message that blows a hole in your moron ramblings seems to fry out the ball bearings in your brain. But let me repeat: What happened in Italy is exactly what you’ll get with Romney as president — and that’s what you’re rooting for.

  10. Franklin says:

    Nothing new for Italy’s “justice” system. Just ask Sir Frank Williams.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Um, have the judges actually thought about what this means? This just creates an incentive for the Seismology Institute (or whoever they are) to issue warnings all the time…

    Also, there’s really not much we can do about predicting earthquakes. Because it’s a fractal signal, there is absolutely no way to know, even in the first several microseconds of an earthquake, whether what’s happening is a mini-quake or the start of The Big One.

    If Italy really insists on attaching responsibility to an earthquake warning system, I suggest a series of carp pools in pools hollowed out of the rock. At least in this case, when the carp get it “wrong”, you can eat them….

    (It does seem that there is a greater than average correlation between “carp getting jumpy” and earthquakes. The theory is that piezo-electric effects occur in crystals of granite that are getting unusually stressed, setting off the fish, who are sensitive to electric fields.)

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    This sounds like a pretty good way to banish seismologists from Italy.

  13. Balqis De Cesare says:

    The verdict was not about predicting earthquakes, but on failing to give to the public correct and complete informations on seismic activities those days , which was precisely the task of the commission .
    Probably the tough penalty and also the wrong reports from Italian press, now are giving that idea on the trial, but it is not correct and unfair toward judge Billi .

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Balqis De Cesare: So they can just hook up the output from a seismograph to a huge screen outside and everyone will be happy? Why didn’t someone tell these guys this earlier?

  15. Steve Verdon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Then you’d probably be charged with inciting a panic or some other equally stupid thing.