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 News ‘Italian scientists convicted for not warning about deadly 2009 quake; The Guardian ‘Italian 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.
I agree totall Michael, it is a sad day for science and for the law. Lets hope common sense prevails in the appeals process. The precedent for the public does not bare thinking about.
Here’s a link to a paper written in 2011 that gives some greater background into the issues surrounding the Italian earthquake prosecutions: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2011.36.pdf
I was having a similar discussion with somebody the other day. As a paramedic it appears the our patients are increasingly requesting assistance for less life threatening conditions such as coughs and colds. These patients state that they did not know what to do, though surely it has not been their first cough or cold at an age of 45years. When they are given a plan, they are content.
Like suggested in the case described in Italy, it seems that society today may have forgotten how to think for themselves. Could it be an acknowledgement of the individual that they do not know everything therefore rely on someone who does or they do not wanting to be wrong and have to be perfect, or an unwillingness to accept the responsibility for their decision submitting to someone else to be accountable.
I guess if we look at ethics and discuss Duty of Care. Society understand that others have a duty of care for them, which may suggest the litigious society that we are becoming. However does the individual also realise that they have a duty of care to themselves? Have we forgotten this duty or do we not want to accept responsibity?
Thank you for the comment, this is an issue that is being increasingly discussed; the national policy on disaster resilience want’s informed communities that share responsibility but on the other hand, we encourage people to be risk averse and not take responsibility. To borrow from just one service, the message from the SES is ‘for emergency help in floods and storms, call 132 500’ not ‘for emergency help in floods and storms, work it out yourself’. Public health messages tell people to take responsibility for their own health, not by ignoring symptoms or ‘soldiering on’ but to ‘go to your doctor to get it checked out’. What is not clear is what ‘shared responsibility’ looks like, am I being responsible for myself if I put myself to bed with a cold that turns out be pneumonia, or by making an appointment to see the doctor, or calling the ambulance, to get expert advice? The success of the emergency services, and other public utilities, naturally increases demands for their services, but that is in fact what they encourage. But how do we know when to call the SES, or the ambulance or the doctor – I remember the reverse when I was a paramedic (not that’s what we were called in those days) of a person with clearly life threatening injuries who apologised for calling us out at 2am – with us telling them that is exactly what we where there for; as the paramedics (level V officers) said ‘if in doubt, call us out’. As a lawyer I had a client who had driven their sick parent to hospital but in their rush they had been involved in a car accident which, the autopsy showed, was the cause of death of the very person that they were trying to assist. In one sense they were being ‘resilient’ and self reliant, but they would have been better off calling an ambulance. We are being taught, and taking on the message, that we have an obligation to look after ourselves, but how do we meet that obligation; by calling the SES to tarp the roof instead of doing it ourselves? By calling the ambulance to rather than ignoring symptoms or trying to drive to hospital?
Well written Michael. It just reinforces how confusing it is for the general public. Do I do this or do I do that? I will just ask somebody else.
Having attended a couple if disaster response seminars there has been a lot of discussion about recovery which has now moved into developing resilience. Are we becoming less resilient in general due to all these mixed messages? Or with messages like that of the SES, are we actually teaching the public to be less resilient?
Or by encouraging people to volunteer with the SES or fire service, and then have community based units, are communities becoming more resilient as they can look after themselves. Is calling the SES an example of low resilience because “I’ll call the government agency to help” or is it community resilience because “We will turn out to help our neighbours”? Is the SES the government helping the community and relieving them of the need to help themselves, in which case relying on the SES is an example of community resilience being lost; or is it the community helping themselves, in which case relying on the SES is an example of community resilience supported by State government resources? The problem is we just don’t know what ‘resilience’ or ‘shared responsibility’ actually looks like.