I have previously blogged on a prosecution launched by Italian authorities against officials and scientist for their failure to warn communities of a pending, and unpredictable, earthquake (see ‘Disaster really brings law into disrepute‘; and ‘Italian prosecution continues‘). Various international news agencies are now reporting that the trial has concluded; all the defendants have been convicted and sentenced to six years imprisonment (see, for example CBS NewsItalian scientists convicted for not warning about deadly 2009 quake; The GuardianItalian scientists jailed for ‘false assurances’ before earthquake etc).’

The commentary on the news sites appears universal in its condemnation of the scientists. From this distance, and being unfamiliar with Italian law, it’s hard to comment on the case but one can only look on with disbelief at what appears to be such an unreasonable and stupid verdict.

We are told that

The defendants were accused in the indictment of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether small tremors felt by L’Aquila residents in the weeks and months before the April 6, 2009, quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning.

As I understand it earthquakes are unpredictable but worse, such a finding completely removes any responsibility that lies with the community to think for themselves. This earthquake occurred in earthquake prone areas. Once upon a time we may have expected communities that had lived there for generations to understand where they lived. Now, for whatever reason, they no longer look at their own environment but only to the officials and expect ‘exact, complete and consistent’ information; there is no ‘shared responsibility’ for making judgments about personal safety and understanding the environment. ‘Exact, complete and consistent’ information cannot be expected or relied upon; human experience tells us that in areas of analysis and prediction consistency cannot be expected and can be dismissed as ‘spin’; that is if there was an official message and no-one was allowed to express their own view for fear of being ‘inconsistent’ then debate and analysis would be lost.

Given the topic of this blog is Australian emergency law, I can predict (but please don’t believe me, I might be wrong) that such a result would be virtually impossible in Australia. Here the Crown would have to prove that there was a legal (not just a moral) duty to warn; that the conduct of the defendants was not just negligent but grossly negligent amounting to recklessness as to whether or not their advice was accurate, and that such a warning, rather than the earthquake, caused the deaths. Recent cases such as Warragamba Winery v NSW (discussed elsewhere in this blog) would give some confidence that such findings are unlikely.

On the other hand, Australia’s risks of fire, storms and cyclones are perhaps more predictable and various inquiries have focused on the need to warn communities particularly where the hazards cannot be controlled. Fire agencies need to think about worst case scenarios and what will happen if a fire gets away from them and warn at risk communities. There could be a stronger case that, once a fire is burning, they have the weather and fire data and so are in a position to warn communities and that failure to do so may amount to negligence. It is outrageous to think however that this could equate to such a high degree of negligence to lead to criminal punishment, but I guess now anything is possible.

The CBS report says

Relatives of some who perished in the 2009 quake said justice has been done. Ilaria Carosi, sister of one of the victims, told Italian state TV that public officials must be held responsible “for taking their job lightly.”

Again, from a distance, it’s hard to know what was happening, but experience with emergency management officials beggars belief that they ‘took their job lightly’ or didn’t care about the community. Claims like this reflect people’s natural emotional shock at their losses, but do not represent what is ‘justice’.

The reports indicate that there will be an appeal, let us hope that it brings some sense to this case. If not I would imagine anyone involved in hazard management and community safety in Italy would be seriously considering their job options. Either that or they should start issuing daily earthquake alerts ‘just in case’. In either case, the Italian community, and perhaps communities world wide, will be worse off with this result in the back of people’s minds.

Today I go to a conference to give a paper on how to avoid legal action; but now everything I was going to say may be wrong if the law (albeit Italian law) is going to react so stupidly to natural events.

This is not only a sad day for science, it’s also a sad and stupid day for the rule of law.