Scientists on trial for failure to warn about earthquake


Six scientists and a senior government official in Italy went on trial September 21 on manslaughter charges for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents of the Italian mountain city of L’Aquila before a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in 2009.

Prosecutors say that the scientists and government official should have given much clearer warnings to the people of L’Aquila that the city had been the subject of more than 400 low-magnitude tremors and that there was a real danger of a major quake. They say that clearer information would have allowed the inhabitants of the city to evaluate the threat and decide whether to evacuate their homes. The scientists were members of a panel that met six days before the 6.3 magnitude earthquake at which they determined that the activity was probably not a prelude to a big quake.

Panel members also gave largely reassuring interviews to local media after the meeting which, according to the criminal indictment, “persuaded the victims to stay at home.” In what has become a now-infamous interview, one of the defendants, Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice chief of the technical department of Italy’s civil protection agency responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine. “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc,” he replied, referring to a high-end red wine. In addition to the criminal proceedings, where, if convicted, the defendants could face up to 15 years in prison, the victims’ families have filed a civil lawsuit seeking $68 million dollars in damages.

The scientific community around the world has leapt to the defense of the defendants claiming that current technology does not allow the prediction of quakes and that the scientists are being unfairly made scapegoats of the calamity which reduced L’Aquila’s medieval center to rubble and left more than 60,000 people homeless. More than 5,000 scientists sent an open letter to Italy’s president, criticizing the trial of their colleagues stating that it was “unfair and naive” of prosecutors to charge the men for failing to warn the population of an impending earthquake. It seems to me that the scientists were facing a very difficult quandary: if they had been too alarmist, they would have needlessly prompted the evacuation of a large city and if they had been too cautious, they risked putting tens of thousands of lives at risk. The American Geophysical Union warned that the trial would have the effect of harming efforts to understand natural disasters.

“Risk of litigation will discourage scientists and officials from advising their government or even working in the field of seismology and seismic risk assessment,” the group said in a statement. The trial has been adjourned until October 15 and, given the slow pace of the Italian justice system, the trial could drag on for months or even years. We will keep you updated on this first-of-akind failure to warn lawsuit!