There's an interesting court case going on in Italy. Seven seismologists are charged with manslaughter for failing to provide adequate warning about an earthquake that killed 308 people in 2009. At issue here is not the inability to predict the earthquake but rather a failure to warn the residents that minor tremors leading up to the earthquake could have been the precursor to a major earthquake.
The case is fascinating for the questions it raises about the duty to warn. We tend to view this a government responsibility and the decision to warn is based on the best available evidence provided by our experts. The Italian authorities are claiming in this case that the seismologists' evidence was so contradictory that it lead to the deaths of innocent citizens. In essence, there seems to be some deflection of blame going on here.
Holding scientists liable for their advice and predictions would obviously have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas so vital to academic institutions. We have always accepted that the academic community would police its own through rigid peer review. However, the system is not foolproof and the academic community has been known to be collectively wrong on many occasions. But using the courts to hold scientists accountable seems like a very bad idea.
One other thought that needs to be said. What about personal responsibility? Italy suffers from earthquakes on a regular basis. It shouldn't take a scientist to tell you that you're at risk. But people really aren't listening when we talk about preparedness. A recent study by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University found that more than half the families surveyed had no plan in place for hurricanes or earthquakes.
It doesn't do any good to hold someone liable for failing to warn if no one is listening to the warning.