Who is Liable for Technical Failures During Natural Disasters?

An in-depth review of the manslaughter sentence of Italian scientists

24 July 2014

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been two years since six scientists and one government official were convicted of manslaughter for failing to give sufficient warning of an earthquake that killed 300 people in the Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009. The men were sentenced in October 2012 to six years in prison and were ordered to pay compensation and legal fees. That verdict is still causing great concern in the scientific and engineering community.

Many wonder how scientists could be held liable when “there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster,” according to a letter sent in June 2010 to the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, calling the charges “unfair and naïve.” An open letter to Napolitano signed by more than 5,000 members of the international scientific community also criticized the proceedings.

To help IEEE members better understand the verdict, the IEEE Instrumentation and Measurement Society asked Veronica Scotti, an Italian attorney whose legal practice involves engineering issues, to review the legal opinion and give her analysis. The article based on her opinion, “The Sentence in the L’Aquila Earthquake Trial,” was published in this April’s issue of the IEEE Instrumentation & Measurement Magazine and is available in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. This is one of the most understandable explanations of the verdict I’ve read.

First some background. The prosecution’s case centered on a 31 March 2009 meeting of the seven defendants who were members of a commission on natural disasters. At the meeting they told residents of L’Aquila there was no cause for concern over the series of minor shocks in the preceding six months. Less than a week later, in the early hours of 6 April, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck.

To understand how the trial developed one must first understand the Italian legal system. It belongs to a more general system called civil law, which is significantly different from the common law legal system used in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries, according to Scotti. Judges must refer to substantive and procedural rules encompassed into codes and have limited authority to interpret law. Referring to the same codes in civil law ensures that similar facts are not treated differently for similar situations. Also, judges, not juries, make decisions about guilt.

In this specific case, the judge considered Rule 225/1992, which addressed “establishing a national service of civil defense.” The law defines the actions of the Italian National Committee for the Forecast and Prevention of Serious Risks, shortened to SRC in the article. This committee’s task is to “provide recommendations required to define analysis and research needs related to civil defense matters, analyzing data provided by institutions and organizations in charge of surveillance of the events considered by this law, evaluating the related risks and required actions as well as analyzing every other issue related to the activities considered by this law.” The judge focused on Article 3, which requires the SRC to provide a competent opinion on the specific tasks of “prediction” and “prevention.” Prediction consists of “all activities aimed at the analysis and identification of the causes of calamities, identification of the related risks, and the geographical areas exposed to these risks.” Prevention covers “all activities aimed at avoiding or minimizing damages, also on the basis of knowledge acquired as a result of prediction.” According to Scotti, the analysis and evaluations required of the SRC have a clear purpose: they represent the grounds upon which the Civil Defense Agency bases its decisions to plan and cope with disasters such as L’Aquila’s earthquake swarm.

The trial examined only the defendants’ behavior during that 31 March meeting with the public and the committee’s evaluations and decisions taken during and immediately afterward when they made their conclusions known by giving interviews and releasing official statements. The agenda for that meeting included an analysis of the scientific as well as civil-defense-related issues about the seismic sequence of the previous four months in that region and the need to “provide an objective evaluation of the ongoing seismic activity aimed at what could be predicted, as well as discuss and provide indications on how to warn the population.” The judge found the defendants’ statements, during and after the meeting, gave evidence of negligence because the defendants failed to perform “a strict and accurate risk assessment exercise” which resulted in “excessive certainty … that seismic activity was evolving towards a harmless end, as well as the stated certainty that no seismic risk was to be considered.” 

According to Scotti, the court’s decision to convict did not refer to a missed prediction of the 6 April earthquake since the court recognized it was unpredictable and the defendants were not requested to predict an earthquake. Instead, the court stated that the “expected qualifications of the defendants should have been high enough” to avoid generating full certainty by the public that a new strong earthquake was not expected. (The L’Aquila region is one of the most seismically active areas in Italy.) The judge also considered the role the SRC members played, their specific scientific competencies, their high qualifications, and the law’s demand that they proceed with due caution in performing an accurate and in-depth global risk assessment that, in the judge’s opinion, could and should have been achieved in light of their qualifications.

The judge concluded the defendants were liable for some, although not all, of the deaths because of their failure to accurately evaluate all risks related to the seismic events in L’Aquila in March 2009 and because the committee’s underestimation of risk led the victims to believe they were not in danger and consequently did not adopt the prudent behavior they generally followed in similar circumstances.

Do you agree with the judge’s verdict? Should engineers and scientists be held responsible if they do not properly access a situation that could cause loss of life? 

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