Italian Scientists Held Responsible for Impacts of Earthquake, Perverse Incentives Abound

While I know that legal systems vary across jurisdictions, and that analyzing the laws of other lands can quickly become a fool's errand, I nonetheless believe that the sensibilities of Italians are similar enough to Americans that many must share my shock at the outcome of a recent case there. From the Christian Science Monitor:

"Rarely since a Catholic inquisition in Rome condemned Galileo Galilei to spend the remainder of his days under house arrest for the heresy of teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun, has an Italian court been so wrong about science.
Today, a court in the central Italian city of L'Aquila, 380 years after that miscarriage of justice, sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead.
This headline isn't the sort of thing that's generally expected from Italy anymore. The church quietly abandoned its objections to heliocentrism in the early years of the 18th century, and by the early 19th, had fully accepted the scientific facts.
But according to the BBC, a modern Italian secular institution is now the one struggling to grapple with science. The seven convicted men stood accused of "inexact, incomplete, and contradictory" information about the risks posed by tremors in the weeks ahead of the April 6, 2009, earthquake that caused so much destruction."

So, if this result were precedential, the takeaway would be that predicting scientific matters incorrectly could be sufficient cause to convict on homicide charges if that scientific matter caused deaths. Perverse incentive anyone? What leading scientists would make themselves available for such liabilities? One might also wonder where would their liability stop? Are they responsible for bad workmanship or people building on known fault lines, or merely the quakes themselves? Would they also be responsible for the costs of evacuation if they were wrong?

Luckily, the going theory is that the ruling, which is headed to an appeals court, will be overturned. If not, Italy will have more problems on its hands than being a global headline laughingstock (again).

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