Italian scientists who failed to predict L'Aquila earthquake may face manslaughter charges

Jun 24, 2010 by Lisa Zyga weblog
A government's office damaged by the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Six of Italy's top seismologists are being investigated for manslaughter for not warning the city of L'Aquila about an earthquake that struck on April 6, 2009. The magnitude-6.3 earthquake caused 308 deaths and 1600 injuries, and left more than 65,000 people homeless.

The L’Aquila public prosecutor’s office issued the indictments on June 3, a step that usually precedes a request for a court trial. The investigation originated when about 30 L’Aquila citizens registered an official complaint that the scientists had failed to recognize the danger of the earthquake during the days and weeks in advance.

In the six months leading up to the earthquake, a series of smaller seismic movements and tremors were recorded nearby, including a magnitude-4.0 earthquake on March 30. On March 31, six days before the large earthquake struck, Italy’s Civil Protection Agency held a meeting with the Major Risks Committee - composed of the six scientists - to assess the risk of a major earthquake. At that time, the committee concluded that there was "no reason to suppose a sequence of small earthquakes could be the prelude to a strong event" and that “a major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out."

At a press conference after the meeting, government official Bernardo De Bernardinis, deputy technical head of the Civil Protection Agency, told reporters that "the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” In addition to the six scientists, De Bernardinis is also under investigation.

According to the group of local citizens, many of the earthquake’s victims had been planning to leave their homes, but had changed their minds after the committee’s statements.

"Those responsible are people who should have given different answers to the public,” said Alfredo Rossini, L'Aquila's public prosecutor. “We're not talking about the lack of an alarm, the alarm came with the movements of the ground. We're talking about the lack of advice telling people to leave their homes."

Minutes from the March 31 meeting show that the scientists recommended that buildings in the area should be monitored to assess their ability to handle a major shock.

Although the scientists are unable to comment due to the investigation, an article in Nature News reported that one of the scientists, Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV) in Rome, wrote in a letter last September that the meeting was too short and that he had not been informed about the following press conference. Only one of the seismologists from the committee, Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Roma Tre, was at the press conference.

Susah Hough, a geophysicist at the US Geological Survey in Pasadena, California, who is not involved in the investigation, also disagrees with some of the remarks from the press conference. "The idea that minor earthquakes release energy and thus make things better is a common misperception,” she said. “But seismologists know it's not true. I doubt any scientist could have said that."

The article in Nature News lists the six scientists and officials under investigation for manslaughter as Boschi; Barberi; Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Earthquake Center based at INGV; Claudio Eva, a professor of earth physics at the University of Genoa; Mauro Dolce, head of the seismic risk office in the Civil Protection Agency; and Gian Michele Calvi, director of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering in Pavia.

Coming to the defense of the seismologists, nearly 4,000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter to Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, urging him to focus on earthquake preparation rather than holding scientists responsible for something that they cannot do - predict earthquakes.

"The proven and effective way of protecting populations is by enforcing strict building codes," said Barry Parsons of the University of Oxford, who signed the letter. "Scientists are often asked the wrong question, which is 'when will the next hit?' The right question is 'how do we make sure it won't kill so many people when it hits?'"

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More information: via: Nature News and The Independent

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User comments : 21

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physpuppy
5 / 5 (6) Jun 24, 2010
... and then they will wonder why no one in Italy will want to become a seismologist anymore...

What part of "this is not an exact science" do they understand?

So, when do they start shooting the Italian meteorologists? :-)

(and the trains - they still run on time, do they not?)
barakn
5 / 5 (3) Jun 24, 2010
Maybe some good can come out of this. Perhaps this will open the door to suing astrologers.
PoppaJ
4.5 / 5 (8) Jun 24, 2010
Ok so we sue the scientists. No one will want to be a scientist. What then? Oh yea we rely on religion and go back to killing the non believers to prevent god from sending earthquakes in his wrath.
ralph_wiggum
5 / 5 (9) Jun 24, 2010
I am suing all doctors for mass murder! Human mortality rate is at 100%. It's like they're trying to kill us.
CLiechtenstein
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 25, 2010
Italy is full of dubious homicide and manslaughter cases. The justice system over there is messed up. Europeans are experiencing yet another nutty period in their history, yet they still look down their noses at us.
anonperson
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
Reading the above comments I get the sense that most commentators think physorg is written for THEIR nationality only... that's curious.

Suing scientists for failing to predict the future... that is FUNNY. It's human beings playing politics... those same humans beings are probably not very sharp in the sciences BUT they do know how to get attention from the world. Maybe these politicians are aiming for a few votes from those who think that you CAN predict future earthquakes with accuracy.
Just_some_guy
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2010
Italy is full of dubious homicide and manslaughter cases. The justice system over there is messed up. Europeans are experiencing yet another nutty period in their history, yet they still look down their noses at us.

Well, Italy may be screwed up, but then again, it's not exactly the cornerstone of Europe, is it? You shouldn't draw any conclusions about the rest of Europe based solely on Italy's judicial system. We are a set of completely different countries you know!
An what exactly is so great about your judicial system? It's based entirely around sueing each other...talk about a harsh climate...
jsa09
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
"no reason to suppose a sequence of small earthquakes could be the prelude to a strong event" and that “a major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out."

If that is not enough information to make a decision then I don't know what is. Did the people suing expect someone to come around to their house and hold their hand? After all they said straight out that a major quake is not ruled out. That is much better than predicting rain when the sky is full of clouds.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
Uh, had they issued any significant warning and nothing happened, they'd be prosecuted for causing a panic...

Remember, litiginous Italy has a law such that your interference with the flow of lava from a volcano makes you liable for *all* subsequent damage. So, whereas the Icelanders famously built a berm to protect their fishing port, the Italians must stand and watch their property burn...

Hopefully, this absurd prosecution will be struck down swiftly-- Though, in Italy, that could still mean a decade 'sub judice'...
Yellowdart
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2010
After this article..would you wanna be the Italian futbol team right now?? :\
AliTaker
3 / 5 (2) Jun 25, 2010
Ahah, being italian, I still must agree with most of the comments above ;-)
Unfortunately that is not the whole story: two points are missing.
Doc. Giampaolo Giuliani from the National Laboratory of Gran Sasso, had just developed a new method of detecting incoming quakes: he had predicted a great magnitude quake right 1 week before the event. http://www.vip.it...edibile/
Since the method was not acknowledged by the scientific community, he was depicted as an alarmist and sued for "provided public alarm" facing jail!
Most agree that keeping ppl out of their homes for 1 week would have been unrealistic, so uneffective in the end. You judge...

The second point is that all public buildings were reported to be *left empty* by their occupants, right before the quake. How can this be? Did somebody new? Firemen and policemen where out of their buildings right before the quake, while on TV they were saying the opposite: "stay at home".
Some questions may rise...
antialias
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
If that is not enough information to make a decision then I don't know what is.

If it were that simple then we'd have catastrophe warnings 24/7. Have you ever been to a seismology lab? On average they record more than 5000 local earthquake events per year (most of which you don't feel). Forget about 'predicting' a big one with 1-2 day certainty - no one has managed that yet.
LKD
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
Suing scientists for failing to predict the future... that is FUNNY.


They said it is not about predictions but that these scientists didn't advise people to leave their un-earthquake resistant homes. Which, last I checked, is normally the duty of the police, fire department, government... I am glad I don't live in Italy.
HaveYouConsidered
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
No doubt they will also get sued for predicting a quake that then fails to occur. After all, such a nuisance and scaring people for nothing. Emotion-driven justice isn't just.
rwinners
5 / 5 (2) Jun 25, 2010
Perhaps the Italian authorities had better look to the Vatican for their predictions. At least they could then blame god.
otto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2010
Anything that happens in italy usually has something to do with la Cosa Nostra. Maybe this is a shakedown... protection money from the academic community? Mob control of peer review, tenure, grants? Sounds strangely familiar... Bank of Rome? Blackshirts? CERN???
dolson
4.3 / 5 (4) Jun 27, 2010
Prosecutors who abuse power should be subject to severe punishment. Such punishment should involve both financial penalties and preferably massive physical hardship.

I suggest that the International Union of Geological Sciences begin legal exploration for the filing of a civil lawsuit in US and UK jurisdictions against the Italian prosecutor(s) who is committing this harassment for his own political gain. The lawsuit should seek punitive damages for harassment and abuse of power. It should seek seizure of any assets he/they may have deposited in any Italian bank that has operational licenses in the US or UK.

Perhaps use of the Spanish courts, which have larger claimed jurisdictions, should be explored. Anything that opens up the possibility of imposing criminal liability and prison time is preferable.

The strategy is to box him/them in and make his/their life miserable. Punish punish punish punish punish.
DaveGee
5 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2010
I am suing all doctors for mass murder! Human mortality rate is at 100%. It's like they're trying to kill us.


Birth: The leading cause of death thru-out the world... news at 11...
antialias
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2010
Prosecutors who abuse power should be subject to severe punishment.

Lawyers who take up such cases should simply be disbarred. End of problem.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2010
Lawyers who take up such cases should simply be disbarred. End of problem.
Abolishing the old principle "audiatur et altera pars" will just open another pandora's box.
Modernmystic
not rated yet Jun 29, 2010
...and Europeans think we're nutty...

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