Italian Court Acquits Scientists Of Manslaughter Charges Incurred After Failing To Predict Deadly Earthquake

from the pitchforks-and-courtrooms dept

It seemed like something from The Onion… or Monty Python: scientists jailed for not predicting the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy. Because their risk assessment delivered six days before the quake "failed" to prevent the earthquake from occurring, Judge Marco Billi decided all six scientists were guilty of manslaughter due to their "superficial, approximate and generic" analysis. They weren't held responsible for all 300+ deaths, but specifically for the 29 deaths of people who stayed in their homes (rather than venturing out) because they believed there was "no risk" of an earthquake.

Some sanity has finally prevailed, over three years since the post-earthquake insanity struck. [h/t to Techdirt reader wereisjessicahyde]
Six seismologists accused of misleading the public about the risk of an earthquake in Italy were cleared of manslaughter on 10 November. An appeals court overturned their six-year prison sentences and reduced to two years the sentence for a government official who had been convicted with them.
We'll get back to that last sentence in a moment, but let us first note that sanity hasn't completely prevailed.
The finding by a three-judge appeals court prompted many L’Aquila citizens who were waiting outside the courtroom to react with rage, shouting “shame” and saying that the Italian state had just acquitted itself, local media reported.
Sure, this could have the appearance of a government body (the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks) getting an assist from another government body (the court system -- the same court system, mind you, that two years earlier convicted these witches scientists of manslaughter), but it isn't. It's the return to a better, simpler time when scientists weren't charged with criminal activities simply for providing risk analysis.

Now, back to the sentence that wasn't overturned.

The government official still doing hard time is Bernardo De Bernardinis, (then) deputy director of the Italian Civil Protection Dept. Apparently, the panel of judges considered his interpretation of the scientists' risk analysis to carry a bit more culpability. This could be because his interpretation of the scientists' assessment ("We showed a map where L’Aquila is purple, which means the highest hazard") was inexplicably much, much cheerier ("The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy"). As it stands now, De Bernardinis has had 16 charges of manslaughter dismissed, but is still working off the other 13.

Nature notes that, because it might take up to three months for the verdict to be published, we don't really know the rationale behind the acquittals. One would hope the reasoning runs along the lines of "to allow these convictions to stand would be batshit crazy, not to mention a latent threat to scientists all over our country." One of the scientists acquitted noted that it appeared the panel of judges agreed no crime had actually been committed -- which is basically the same thing as above, presumably with more legalese.

And, of course, this is a judicial system so it must be noted that these acquittals can be appealed and Italy may find itself locking up scientists again, much to the general aghastness of everyone.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 4:33am

    The end result will be people fleeing from such fields of work simply out of fear much like it's happening with doctors. Less people are seeking a medical degree due to the fact that anything may result in a lawsuit, regardless of if it was an error or if the error was caused by factors beyond professional control. The result is a lack of professionals in the field that is clearly starting to be felt (not only in the US btw).

    With the highly complex knowledge needed for the career if I were the guys I'd simply leave collectively and tell Italy to monitor and interpret seismic activities by itself. After all it should be simple to be 100% certain on natural events, no? Ask meteorologists and they'll agree.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 5:55am

      Re:

      "Less people are seeking a medical degree due to the fact that anything may result in a lawsuit"

      Do you have a citation for that claim? A quick search for validation on my part only showed up articles like the following, which essentially say the opposite (I'm no expert in the field, but they seem like fairly reasonable sources). If anything the theme seems to be that it's lack of support and funding that's preventing even more people from going to medical school, not what happens after they start practice.

      http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/813306

      https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/newsreleases/358410 /20131024.html

      "After all it should be simple to be 100% certain on natural events, no? Ask meteorologists and they'll agree."

      I think a sarcasm monitor broke somewhere...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 7:45am

        Re: Re:

        If anything the theme seems to be that it's lack of support and funding that's preventing even more people from going to medical school, not what happens after they start practice.

        Yeah, that's a bad issue too. Thanks for the sources btw. I wonder if we can find numbers for those with a medical degree that are working in unrelated jobs or the number of doctors that are needed versus the ones that actually get their degrees?

        I may have extrapolated my assumptions based on what we've seen here in my region for the last decade yes, I will look into it. However, having doctors in the family, many professionals I know and there were many, many cases within their social circles that quit practicing autonomously and went to work mostly with companies, many with labor related issues more connected with legal issues with employees (this has more to do with my country labor laws), thus having the legal support from the company itself. Maybe the trend has reverted and I'm assuming something that isn't true anymore nowadays?

        I think a sarcasm monitor broke somewhere...

        I didn't understand this bit. There are complexities and uncertainties that will produce false positives (or negatives) at times in virtually anything that tries to predict something, no?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 8:17am

        Re: Re:

        Just a heads up I checked around and indeed it was a problem in the 2000s and much like in the US they rose the bar to avoid petty litigation against doctors it seems that it was the case here too. Shame on me for not updating my knowledge. However I think my point may still stand since the uncertainty back then did cause problems that sparked such legal protections. Maybe this will spark more protection for the scientists in Italy too?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 11:46pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          "However I think my point may still stand since the uncertainty back then did cause problems that sparked such legal protections"

          Perhaps, but is it really the major factor, let alone the primary one as you implied?

          Some of the drop in medical studies can be explained by people choosing other industries that were temporarily seen as a quicker route to riches (the I.T. industry definitely had a glut of people who though they could make it rich, and I believe the US legal industry had a glut of student for a while). Combine that with the fact that baby boomer-era professionals are starting to retire en masse, and the increased population in the last few decades means there's less doctors per capita, and you can easily explain a doctor shortage without considering lawsuits at all.

          I don't have any first-hand knowledge in the profession, by the way, I'm just painfully aware of the massive levels of bullshit that have been spread on the subject during the US healthcare "debate" where one side seemed to rely on ridiculous lies to try and keep the status quo. Given that some people seemed obsessed with the idea of tort reform as the magic bullet that would "fix" the industry, I'm very suspicious of claims in this area - especially if you extend the claim to far less litigious countries.

          I'll accept that there may have been some problems caused by overzealous litigation, but I'm not convinced this is the major reason behind any shortage of professionals.

          "I didn't understand this bit. "

          I felt you were being very sarcastic, that's all. I agree, by the way.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Groaker (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 6:05am

      Re:

      There are fewer medical lawsuits than ever. With monetary caps on pain and suffering, it is next to impossible to find an attorney who will take a case on a contingency basis. The victim generally must fund their own case, something that most people can not afford to do.

      There is no shortage of qualified students applying to medical school. There are, for a variety of reasons, limits on the number of available seats.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 6:42am

      Re:

      More likely they'll just leave the country; scientists tend to be somewhat international in their outlook and mobile in their residence (at least one overseas position is a standard feature of a lot of academic careers).

      The result is basically the same, however. If the Italians want to be medieval idiots, they can go back to relying on medieval knowledge. Maybe they'll gaol some priests next time (so at least something good will come of it, then...).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      steell (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 8:04am

      Re:

      Medical School Applicants, Enrollment Reach All-time Highs
      https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/newsreleases/358410/20131024.html

      If you don't like that source, then there are many more to choose from.

      Got a cite for your claim?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 8:21am

        Re: Re:

        Replied to Paul above. Check it out. I found this article and it shows how outdated are my informations on this field. It is indeed as you say. After the number of lawsuits peaked they are down now with the protections that were set up. Again thanks for the heads up.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 6:00am

    Collateral Damage

    Worse yet, this verdict could cost thousands of lives.
    Once civil servants has to factor in their own behinds when confronted with seismologists' data, public safety fades to a distant secondary consideration.
    Bad for science, scientists, and the public.
    Good for lawyers, though...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 8:36am

      Re: Collateral Damage

      Well, it will be a very strange situation to maneuver for future scientists:

      If the public is alarmed too often they will get in trouble for being alarmist and sued for the damages the preparations cost or stamped as nutjobs.
      If they alarm too rarely, they will be liable for not foreseen consequences.

      When that is said, there is a communication angle here since it seems the deputy directors communication of the findings could be seen as very misleading.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 6:19am

    If the so called scientists had stuck to science and to being scientist they would not be in the court system but instead they decided use science for political purposes which caused them to be in their current situation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Adam (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 6:26am

    Sometimes just one word fixes everything. All these scientists had to do was finish their report with a one word sentence: Maybe. I vote all scientists everywhere add this final word.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 17 Nov 2014 @ 6:59am

    The finding by a three-judge appeals court prompted many L’Aquila citizens who were waiting outside the courtroom to react with rage, shouting “shame” and saying that the Italian state had just acquitted itself, local media reported.

    and while they were on their way home, it began to rain. They are now in the process of suing the local weather broadcaster that told them there was little chance of rain that day.

    When did Italians become stupid?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Stewby, 17 Nov 2014 @ 7:24am

    Maybe this isn't a wholly terrible precedent if it can be applied to talking head economists on CNBC telling people to BTFATH.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 7:40am

    Blame the damn scientists... now lets do judges next!

    Because surely they are right 100% of the time and no innocent people have ever been incarcerated or even executed based on the available information at the time.
    After that we can do economists and then meteorologists. Oh boy! it's gonna be so much fun.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 8:10am

      Re: Blame the damn scientists... now lets do judges next!

      Er, ahem, excuse me;

      Do you think you could find room for political pundits (you know, the ones that tell us what we are supposed to think?), and all members of the 'Tea' party?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 7:57am

    1. Predicting earthquakes currently is not possible.

    2. Scientists provided a risk assessment based on probabilities.

    3. Even low risk (i.e., low probability) stuff happens sometimes.

    This just seems like a lot of people not understanding the information provided. It's sad how often this occurs with scientific knowledge and its interpretation by the public.


    See "it's only a "theory""

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    WysiWyg (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 8:22am

    "We showed a map where L’Aquila is purple, which means the highest hazard"

    Hang on a second here. Did they, or did they not, point out that L'Aquila was in danger? How could they have been convicted in the first place if they actually showed that map?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Michael, 17 Nov 2014 @ 9:48am

      Re:

      When someone is dumb enough to blame scientists for deaths caused by an earthquake, they also believe that even when presented with information that they may be at risk, the person that came up with that information is also responsible for making them listen.

      You see, in Italy, when Chicken Little discovered that the sky was falling, he actually needed to arm himself, round up everyone, and march them to safety. If not, his warnings were simply not good enough to protect him from liability.

      Oh, and if anyone was injured while they were marched to safety, Chicken Little would be liable for that too.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 18 Nov 2014 @ 12:06am

      Re:

      "How could they have been convicted in the first place if they actually showed that map?"

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scapegoating

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 17 Nov 2014 @ 9:44am

    Jail everyone for bad risk assessment?

    Here's an idea: what if we jailed everyone when their risk assessment was wrong?
    Would this finally hold Wall Street accountable for when their risk assessment of the mortgage industry (or any other market) is wrong and people lose millions? Would less people go into the Wall Street risk assessment departments if they knew they could be jailed if they're wrong?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Michael, 17 Nov 2014 @ 9:49am

      Re: Jail everyone for bad risk assessment?

      The risk assessments for Wall Street are done by rich people. Scientists are usually poor.

      Do you understand?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2014 @ 10:06am

      Re: Jail everyone for bad risk assessment?

      Very hard to do. If I say it's low risk to occur and it does occur, it doesn't mean I was wrong. Rare things happen all the time.

      Risk assessments are also based on some sort of assumptions too. These are typically very important but seldom communicated clearly, especially second hand

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    FM Hilton, 17 Nov 2014 @ 11:02am

    Don't tell our media this..

    Sure, they acquitted some of them, but the verdict still stands as proof of ultimate stupid.

    I think Galileo would have been convicted of the same charges as he was the last time under this kind of reasoning.

    Don't tell anyone in the US about this, because our scientists will be next on trial for not warning about earthquakes, rainstorms or hurricanes. They'll be sued for having not told anyone adequately, even when given maps, radar and satellite images.

    There are no international borders against stupid people-they exist everywhere.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.