Monday, September 19, 2011

A Risk That I Suspect Was Not in the Job Description

After watching the debacle that was the Amanda Knox trial, and retrial, there's very little about the Italian justice system that should really surprise anyone.
Well, maybe this.
A group of Italian geologists are being criminally prosecuted (with attending civil liability a possibility, as well) for failing to predict an earthquake in 2009.
The quotes in the associated story are almost comical. The Italian prosecutors, as well as the citizens of the destroyed town who are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from six leading geophysicists and one government official, all say they "know" that earthquakes can't be predicted. What they claim to be suing for is the negligence of the scientists in evaluating and communicating specific risks about potential events to the local population.
Well, I am not versed in Italian jurisprudence, but assessing and adequately warning about specific risks sounds an awful lot like prediction, at least to my untrained ear. And anyway, it wasn't like this thing just happened out of the blue-the village had been subject to shocks and low-level tremors over a period of months leading up to the big one. The town itself had been effectively leveled in 1703 by strong earthquake, comparable to the one that struck in 2009.
The government actually held a meeting in the town of a so-called risks commission to talk about the swarm of smaller quakes and the likely effect. Apparently the information disseminated was scientifically correct, including a statement by one of the geologists that even though there did not appear to be a big risk at this point, since the town was located in a major earthquake zone, no one could be sure. Unfortunately, what a government official conveyed at a press conference once the scientists had finished speaking was a little more definitive-indicating that there was virtually no danger, and that the swarm of smaller quakes was dissipating potential earthquake energy. That assessment, even according to the scientists on the commission, was incorrect.
It's a little reminiscent of the movie Jaws, where the mayor of the town is telling everyone it's safe to go to the beaches while the scientists know that the great white shark is out there selecting a chianti to go with its next meal.
The case will have interesting ramifications. Is it safer for the scientists now to say nothing from this point forward? What exactly are their duties, especially since this national risk commission relies on scientific estimates to make judgments about buildings, transportation, and other high-risk construction?  Sovereign immunity would almost certainly bar such an action here, but given our lawsuit craziness, even a lawsuit like this is not impossible. I could just see a wave of federal court filings after California falls into the ocean, for example.  Sounds like a situation requiring no-fault insurance.

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