Liability and Scientific Prediction; Implications for the Future of Increasing Environmental Disasters Attributed to Climate Change

The international scientific community has been rattled due to a recent verdict in an Italian court condemning scientists for their predictions in relation to an earthquake that wreaked havoc on residents of the Abruzzo region in Italy.  On October 22, 2012, a provincial court in Italy convicted six scientists from the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and one civil official from the Civil Protection Agency of manslaughter in connection with their scientific predictions and publicly released information regarding the L’Aquila earthquake.  The seven individuals were convicted for failing to adequately warn the residents prior to the 6.3 magnitude earthquake on April 6, 2009 that killed 309 people.  Defendants have been sentenced to six years in prison, ordered to pay millions of euros in damages and costs, and have been barred from ever holding public office again.  Under Italian law, two appeals are permitted and convictions are not definitive until after the appeals trials, and so the scientists will not be going to jail immediately.

All of the convicted individuals were part of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks.  This Commission met on March 31, 2009 to discuss a series of small earthquakes in the region over the previous few weeks.  A document was created out of this meeting warning residents of the region an earthquake was “unlikely.”  In addition, the civil official, Bernardo de Bernardinis, issued a public statement that there was no danger due to the constant release of small tremors.  He reportedly told citizens to relax with a glass of wine.

Prosecutors and the plaintiffs, the surviving residents of L’Aquila, claim the predictions made by this commission and the publicly made statements to quell fears about the earthquake caused residents to stay in their homes instead of evacuating.  Interestingly, the prosecutor cited a United States court ruling that attributed liability for some of the damage and flooding from Hurricane Katrina to the Army Corps of Engineers for “monumental negligence.”  In the case cited, the Army Corps has built a navigational canal, MR-GO, and were blamed for failing to maintain the canal properly, as the landed eroded over time and caused the canal to widen.  MR-GO was not a case about improper warnings.  In only four hours, Judge Marco Billi found that the scientific assessments made by the commission were “superficial and ineffective” and disclosed “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about earthquake danger.

The Defense attorneys as well as the Italian and International scientific community have protested that, according to generally and widely-held scientific principles, the earthquake was unlikely to happen, earthquakes are very difficult to predict even with modern technology, and that such a verdict “is perverse and the sentence is ludicrous.”  Over 5,000 scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, which says:  “It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning.”  The Defense attorneys as well as the Italian and International scientific community have protested that, according to generally and widely-held scientific principles, earthquakes are very difficult to predict even with modern technology, and that such a verdict “is perverse and the sentence is ludicrous.”

Written by Rachel Rosenfeld, GIELR staff