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Scientists found guilty for L'Aquila earthquake deaths … but why?

Six Italian scientists and one governmental official were found guilty of manslaughter on Monday for underestimating the risk of a deadly 2009 earthquake. The quake struck the medieval Italian town of…

An Italian court has found scientists directly responsible for 29 of the 309 deaths from the 2009 earthquake. EPA/Roberto Grillo

Six Italian scientists and one governmental official were found guilty of manslaughter on Monday for underestimating the risk of a deadly 2009 earthquake.

The quake struck the medieval Italian town of L'Aquila in April 2009, killing 309 people and destroying the city’s historic centre.

The verdict – which will see the seven individuals face six years in jail and millions of euros worth of damages – has already raised much discussion in the scientific community. It may also influence the future behaviour of scientists asked to give advice on natural-hazard risks.

What is commonly misunderstood about this case is that the guilty parties were convicted neither for failing to forecast the earthquake nor for neglecting to advise evacuation of the city.

Rather, they were convicted for having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information” about the dangers of the ongoing seismic activity and therefore undermining the safety of the population.

The seven convicted individuals were part of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks which was summoned to a meeting in L’Aquila on March 31 2009, the day after the main foreshock of magnitude 4.1 caused some damage to buildings. Less than a week later the deadly 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck.

The March 31 meeting was followed by a press conference during which, according to the presiding judge Marco Billi, those representing the Commission failed to appropriately convey the level of risk to the local population. This prevented citizens from taking precautions that would otherwise have saved lives.

The meeting and press conference took place in a climate of tension and nervousness due to the increasing frequency and intensity of a swarm of earthquakes that had been affecting the area for the previous four months.

The tension was compounded by predictions of a coming quake by researcher Gioacchino Giuliani.

Many building were destroyed in L'Aquila, including the Palazzo del Governo. EPA/Schiazza

Guiliani’s predictions were based on radon gas emission measurements – a technique not trusted by the scientific community. On March 31 2009, Giuliani was reported to the police for spreading unjustified alarm, leading him to stop making public pronouncements on earthquakes.

At the trial – which lasted from September 2011 to October 2012 – it was revealed that the meeting of the Major Risks Commission was called to allay public fears that had been stirred up by Giuliani’s pronouncements in conjunction with the ongoing earthquake swarm.

In his closing speech, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti judged the analysis of the Major Risks Commission as “deficient, unsuitable, inadequate and culpably deceptive”.

“Reading the meeting transcript,” he said, “we can find a series of trivial, self-contradictory, useless and misleading statements”.

Picuti pointed out many inconsistencies in the Commission assessment. He argued that the statement of scientist Franco Barberi – who essentially said a seismic swarm is not a precursor to a large event – was in contradiction with studies and positions held by other members present at the meeting. Importantly, it seems nobody questioned Barberi’s position.

Picuti added:

In 1995 Enzo Boschi [one of the six scientists] forecast with probability 1 – therefore with absolute certainty – an earthquake with magnitude 5.9 in the following 20 years in this area.

This information was not provided at the meeting, but rather, the occurrence of strong earthquakes was defined as unlikely. Boschi said “I would rule out the possibility of big earthquakes” and nobody contested this statement. That was a reckless sentence that was belied by the facts.

Because of this statement people have died.

EPA/Christiano Chiodi

Picuti also addressed the statement made by another of the accused – government official Bernado De Bernardinis – before the meeting in which the latter had stated:

the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable.

When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis famously replied “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

Following testimony by victims’ relatives about the different behaviour adopted after the Major Risks Commission press conference, the judge recognised a direct causal link between the conduct of the convicted and the decision of some of the victims to stay inside. Specifically, he recognised a causal link for 29 deaths and four injured people.

Among the testimonies was that of the lawyer Maurizio Cora, who lost his wife and two daughters.

On March 30 2009 – the day of the main foreshock of 4.1 magnitude – Cora made his daughter go outside, even though she had a fever of 39ºC. On the night of April 5, when the main earthquake struck, Cora and his family stayed inside because he felt reassured by the Commission that it was safe to do so.

The case raises many questions, including whether scientists should bend their advice to suit the needs of an administration. And this, in turn, raises even bigger questions that will undoubtedly be explored as the verdict inevitably moves towards an appeal.

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36 Comments sorted by

  1. Ken Swanson

    Geologist

    It is time for climate scientists and their spruikers to be held accountable for their predictions also.
    Too much money has been expended and when the predictions do not come true there is always an excuse.
    Corporate crooks who lie or are negligent in releasing financial data in a prospectus are convicted felons and sent to jail.
    Scientists are paid professionals too. People are losing patience. Little wonder climate change is dropping down the list of important issues in people's lives. The consensus stuff is wearing thin also. A consensus of who? A group of the interdependent scientists who rely on each other to bolster each other's careers so they can keep people they do not like or disagree with out.
    Enough.

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    1. Brad Stringer

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken,
      I suggest you write an article for this website rather than trolling the comments of other's work.

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    2. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      I doubt that scientists who predict danger to the community are going to cause deaths. Maybe some economic concerns but not likely death. It is far more likely that those who understate a situation, place people's lives at risk. Though I am wary of the decision made by the court (though I certainly dont know the full facts), it is encouraging that this decision potentially puts the responsibility on the scientific community and public officials to be far more wary of making definitive statements contrary to the vast majority of the scientific community that could put peoples lives at risk. Beware Tony Abbott. You words now might finally come back to prosecute you

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken. I am surprised that you do not know Roger Jones. He has been mentioned on Andrew Bolt's blog - you know - the place where you get all your climate science.

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    4. Alan John Hunter

      Retired

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      "Corporate crooks who lie or are negligent in releasing financial data in a prospectus are convicted felons and sent to jail."
      Are you dreaming, you mean are supposed be sent to goal.
      Not one of the criminals who caused the GFC are in goal and they never will be, the statue of limitations is running out, and we should be asking why do they have a stature of limitations?.
      Because these are crimes committed by the people that make the rules.

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    5. Aleksandra Hadzelek

      Lecturer in International Studies at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Alan John Hunter

      Exactly. I liked the background photo saying 'The law applies to all'. If this is the case, why aren't GFC makers on trial and in jail? The misery they caused all over the world (and we haven't seen the end if it) far exceeds the role these scientists could have played in the death of some of the earthquake victims. If 7 people are to be jailed for 6 years each for the decisions and public statements they made, then we need to start building a hell of a lot of new jails to house everybody who contributed to the GFC - if the law applies to all, that is.

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  2. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    "We have no conflict of interests in this matter."

    Academics writing that academics shouldn't be responsible for bad advice - you might suggest there is at least an appearance of self-interest here.

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  3. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Excellent... so one way or the other those who say global warming isn't happening - from a purely scientific perspective of course - like geologists, chemists and computer programmmers ... may be hauled into some court when Venice or Cairo or Bangladesh slips under the waves.

    One lives in hope.

    Underestimating risk - providing comforting - but wrong - advice based on wishful thinking and an inherently conservative political viewpoint - a business as usual approach - is indeed culpable behaviour.

    Suitable punishments? Something Old Testament I'd reckon. Something appropriately pre-rational.

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Mr O

      Maybe the reading of chicken entrails could be used by those who are unhappy with scientific messengers.

      Gobsmacked that a failure to accurately estimate the severity of an earthquake immediately shakes a few climate deniers from the eaves. Interesting dots to join.

      Live in hope that improvement in understanding scientific methodology will trickle up to the powers-that-be. Meanwhile, honest advice will become scarce.

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Mornin' Ms A...

      I'd be having a sneaking suspicion that there's more to this little tale that meets the eye ... a bit of pressure from local pizza bar owners to keep things stable and open... who knows?

      Either way it's an interesting notion isn't it - that scientific advise that gets people killed is held to account. Would that such options be available for dealing with wayward economists. We'd need a lot more gaols.

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    3. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Here we go - I knew there'd be an apt verse or two:

      Rev 19:20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.

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    4. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Well may we say "God save the Queen", because nothing will save the messenger!

      With deepest apologies to god, I mean, Gough.

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  4. Brad Stringer

    logged in via Twitter

    This article falls over for lack of analysis of the evidence, the relevant law and the findings of the Court. It is not possible to form a view about the implications of the case in that void.

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Brad Stringer

      this article goes as far as it goes & that's fair enough. but there is much more to ask & do, starting with "cui bono" & "follow the money". -a.v.

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Sheer absolute craziness!!!!

    This is madness begot by madness. How in the hell are those scientists supposed to know when an earthquake will strike.

    It reminds me of the Bali bombing fiasco. Weeping friends and relatives inferred that the government was partly responsible for their injuries because, 'the government didn't warn us'.

    Now look a the DFAT site for safety warnings around the world. Even New Zealand is unsafe. The government has simply smothered us with warnings. When this happens, nobody takes notice.

    Just watch the earthquake monitoring organisation websites change now: WARNING: Earthquakes probable today - somewhere.

    Madness, sheer madness

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      That's right Gerard ... it's the nanny state gone mad ... a gingham frock, a parasol and an insatiable lust for revenge.

      Or, we don't know.

      But one should note that there is a difference between being unable to guess or estimate the timing of an earthquake, eruption or some other cataclysm and providing re-assurance that folks should just have a glass of wine and let nature take it's course.

      The short answer is that much of this stuff is actually guesswork - very difficult but developing science - but the correct advice was and is that they do not know. But they went further than that by the look of this report at least.

      Providing irresponsible reassurance in the absence of secure knowledge is a risky business.

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    2. Michael J. I. Brown

      ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Monash University

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Is the following statement by Gerard Dean really true?

      "Now look a the DFAT site for safety warnings around the world. Even New Zealand is unsafe. The government has simply smothered us with warnings. When this happens, nobody takes notice."

      If you go to http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/New_Zealand the first three bullet points are....

      We advise you to exercise normal safety precautions in New Zealand.

      Exercise common sense and look out for suspicious behaviour, as you would in Australia.

      New Zealand is subject to earthquakes and volcanic activity. Comprehensive information about what to do in an earthquake or other natural disasters is available from the New Zealand Earthquake Commission (www.eq-iq.org.nz). See Additional information: Natural disasters, severe weather and climate for more information.

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    3. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      In the months just before the Bali bombing the Howard government was insisting that our role in the invasion of Iraq did not increase the risk of Australian's being attacked either her or abroad.

      That was clearly nonsense, as the Bali bombing and many other events have proven.

      My feeling is that the only thing that Howard, Rudd, Wong, Turnbell, and Gillard will be remembered for in 100 years time is them all knowing the realities of climate change, knowing that it was economically feasible and sensible to take action, yet all failing to take effective action.

      Predicting earthquakes is hard. But we know the big picture on climate change and we are doing far too little.

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    4. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      A correction - the invasion of Iraq had not happened at the time of the Bali bombing. It was the invasion of Afghanistan which the Howard government was saying didn't put Australian's at any extra risk.

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  6. Marion Brook

    BA, Grad Dip Ed (student)

    Both ordering evacuations, and recommending people maintain a constant state of alert, present serious dangers to peoples physical and mental well-being. These risks must be weighted against the risk indicated by the seismological evidence.

    The charge of "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information is ridiculous. Available evidence is rarely entirely complete or consistent and, consequently, we can never expect predications to be entirely accurate.

    According to one of the linked articles (below) the scientists said that, based on the evidence, a major earthquake was "unlikely" but "not impossible".

    How that was understood and communicated by the "government official" and media is another matter...

    http://abcnews.go.com/International/scientists-convicted-manslaughter-failing-predict-italian-quake/story?id=17536977#.UIcTG2eewsc

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  7. Alan John Hunter

    Retired

    As a builder I was asked several times to do house inspections prior to purchase, when I read of a expert in the agricultural sector giving advice which was proved incorrect, he was then sued and lost.
    I realised that if I missed something in these inspections, I could also be sued,I therefore judged it prudent to cease this practice.

    It seems highly unscientific to make these sort of predictions, indeed I wonder what they had been smoking or drinking, or if hubris tends to get the better of you, or you are blinded by the brilliance of the light shining from your fundamental orifice, its best to keep your trap shut.

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    1. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Alan John Hunter

      In this case it is all about, it is always somebodies fault and what happens when another theoretician gives a contradictory forecast.
      How will Italy treat those who gave forecast that denied the greenhouse affect, life imprisonment for everyone it manages to catch, how about if the rest of the world picks up on this.
      Even you give no guarantee of the outcome, only give a conclusion based upon your best judgement and current theories, are you still liable for the example weather, as an engineer for footing failures as a horse racing tout for every bet that loses.
      All that means in future when giving any kind of forecast it is all couched in terms of best guess and as a more probable event.

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  8. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

    Sounds like the story about the boy shepherd who cried 'Wolf' too often and no one paid him any attention.

    The best way seems to be to just to collect and present the evidence to those 'upstairs' and let them make the decisions whether to duck or not.

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  9. Kay Walker

    logged in via Facebook

    It sounds as though a lot of misunderstandings have cascaded over one another. Firstly, I'm sure geologists etc acknowledge they CANNOT predict any sort of geophysical event with much certainty; the district authorities were obviously pressuring the scientists to say something; the scientists should have resisted pressure to sound certain one way or the other; the general public does NOT understand the degree of uncertainty in ANY scientific prediction or lab result & last- human beings always bet far over the odds for things they WANT- look at lotteries. Better to be cautious when risking lives than placatory & cop the flac, which this time means jail.

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  10. Michael Glass

    Teacher

    I thought that earthquakes were an act of God. If so, why should these scientists take the rap?

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  11. Tony Wilsmore

    logged in via email @veanto.com.au

    In the past we burnt women as witches out of ignorance and fear. Now the only excuse for punishing scientists is fear and stupidity.

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  12. Christopher Wingate

    Advocate

    "Scientists found guilty for L'Aquila earthquake deaths"
    So why aren’t politicians and judges liable for their horrific life changing mistakes? After all they ruin people’s live almost every day yet we never see them held to account and sent to jail do we.
    When will the public demand they be held to account?
    Voters trust politicians to manage the communities on their behalf- and so the relationship is actually a fiduciary one. And that has very serious implications that are being overlooked…

    Read more
    1. Alan John Hunter

      Retired

      In reply to Christopher Wingate

      I couldn't agree more.
      Around the time of Tampa we had LNP politicians running around saying that these refugees were terrorist's, this was a blatant lie and clearly untrue as these people were fleeing terrorism, there has not been one refugee ever charged or convicted of any terrorism related offence.
      Now a politician can be in serious strife for misleading parliament, yet can knowingly and deliberately mislead the public and their own constituents without any recourse or even a public admission…

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  13. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor

    The article suggests that scientists made definitive and unqualified statements as to the likelihood of a serious earthquake such as in the statement below,

    "Boschi said “I would rule out the possibility of big earthquakes” and nobody contested this statement. That was a reckless sentence that was belied by the facts."

    Taken at face value (and maybe out of context), this is clearly a ridiculous statement, and while jail does not seem warranted; some re-education is clearly required.

    We…

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