Italian scientists on trial for manslaughter over 2009 quake

September 19, 2011 by Ljubomir Milasin

Top Italian scientists go on trial Tuesday, accused of manslaughter by playing down the risks of the devastating 2009 earthquake in the central city of L'Aquila in a case that some see as an unfair indictment of science.

Prosecutors allege that the seven defendants -- six leading scientists and a government official -- should have warned residents to flee their homes ahead of the April 6, 2009 quake that killed more than 300 people in the capital of Italy's Abruzzo region.

The experts were members of a panel that had met six days before the quake to assess risks after hundreds of tremors had shaken the medieval walled city.

At that meeting, the committee headed by Franco Barberi of the Civil Protection Agency analysed data on more than 400 low-magnitude tremors that shook the region during the previous four months and determined that the activity was not a prelude to a major quake.

The experts are accused of giving overly reassuring information to the local residents who could have taken adequate protective measures if they had been properly informed.

According to the indictment issued last May, the seven are suspected of "negligence and imprudence... of having provided an approximative, generic and ineffective assessment of risks as well as incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information."

The seven include such prominent scientists as Enzo Boschi, until recently the president of Italy's National Institute of and (INGV), or Claudio Eva, a physics professor at the University of Genoa.

The experts had made it clear that it was not possible to predict whether a stronger quake would occur but had recommended stricter enforcement of anti-seismic measures, particularly regarding building construction.

Many in the scientific community however argue that the case effectively amounts to putting science on trial.

In an open letter sent to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, more than 5,000 scientists said the seven defendants essentially face criminal charges for failing to predict quakes, even though it remains technically impossible to pinpoint the time, location and strength of a future earthquake in the short term.

"This is a trial which opens on very shaky foundations. You cannot put science on trial," said Alfredo Biondi, Eva's lawyer, who recalled that his client had during the meeting of the expert panel stated that "one cannot rule out a major quake".

The lawyer also slammed the "absolute inconsistency of the prosecution" which first blamed the experts for "predicting the risk" and then for "failing to assess it".

But Vincenzo Vittorini, a doctor who founded the association "309 martyrs" and lost his wife and daughter in the disaster, said, "I hope that this trial will change mindsets and will lead to greater attention given to communication on risks."

"No one expected to be told the exact time of the quake. We just wanted to be warned that we were sitting on a bomb," he added

Some 120,000 people were affected by the L'Aquila quake, which also destroyed the city's historic centers and medieval churches.

In the September 14 issue of the science weekly Nature focused on the L'Aquila trial, Thomas Jordan, head of the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting (ICEF), said the case raises a fundamentally important issue about risk assessment.

Italy's INGV has for several years drawn up a map of seismic risks in Italy and L'Aquila has since 2006 been within the highest-risk zone.

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

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4.3 / 5 (6) Sep 19, 2011
A medieval legal system to match the medieval town. Italy must have some of the stupidest prosecutors on earth, they spent 13 years trying to get a manslaugher conviction after Aryton Senna was killed racing in the 1994 San Marino GP.

It seems any death that makes the news must be someones fault.
4.5 / 5 (8) Sep 19, 2011
...and if they had urged everyone to leave and there was no earthquake they would be sued for millions. Hindsight is 20/20 and natural disaster prediction is far from perfect, deal with it.

By punishing people for failing like this all you do is make people afraid to try in the first place.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2011
This reminds me of a case in American law known as /Kennedy v. Parrott/ wherein the court quotes, "The law should encourage self-reliant surgeons to whom patients may safely entrust their bodies, and not men who may be tempted to shirk from duty for fear of a law suit."

Perhaps the Italian court system should encourage this same deference toward seismologists when it comes to decisions regarding seismic phenomena.
1 / 5 (6) Sep 19, 2011
At one end of the scale we have CERN requiring a certainty of 5-sigma before confirming results. At the other end, the dark matter alchemists basing their careers on an undefined theorised particle so that Newtons theory of gravitation is preserved... Here we have the local man, Giampaolo Giuliani, noticing a spike in radon levels warning people of an imminent quake - only to be silenced by expert opinion. He was vindicated a short time later. Science it seems is not immune to arrogance, ego and elitism. The legal cases will probably fail but it shines a spotlight on the scientific method and hypocrisy.
5 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2011
Noticing a spike in Radon levels huh? So that is an official standard for "Quake is coming, run for your lives!" ?

I guess we can all rest easy now, because prediction of earthquakes has been achieved.

Geat real. The scientists had no clue when one was coming. Even if they had said "A huge earthquake can happen sometime in the next X months/years", no one would have lifted a finger to do anything, especially not in the next 6 days.

Anyway, let the Italian morons continue to viligy their scientists. They are welcome in America.
3 / 5 (2) Sep 20, 2011
This court suit is just another example of the dangers inherent to a legal system influenced by political and commercial factors.
When these factors are stronger than the fairness principle they tarnish the face of democracy.
3 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2011

The death of Aryton Senna was manslaughter. Somebody did something they shouldn't have and it killed him. Check your facts first. Although the truth about what happened was kept very quiet, so I can forgive you ignorance. Frank Williams only got away with it because Bernie Eccleston threatened to take the F1 race away from Italy. Its worth a lot of money to their economy. Thats what I "heard" anyway. And thats all I'm saying.

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