discussed the conviction of a group Italian seismologists on manslaughter charges stemming from their assessment of earthquake risk prior to the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake. However, in addition to the scientists, the government official who used the assessment to brief the public was also convicted. Taken together, this type of legal action could have a chilling effect on both the experts that assess risk and the public officials who rely on those assessments.
Security technologist, Bruce Schneier, sums it up well in a recent blog:
As someone who constantly makes predictions about security that could potentially affect the livelihood and lives of those who listen to them, this really made me stop and think. Could I be arrested, or sued, for telling people that this particular security product is effective when in fact it is not?
One of our principal tasks as emergency managers is the assessment and prioritization of risks. We base that prioritization on both the advice of experts and our training and intuition. While we hold ourselves professionally accountable for those decisions, the possibility of facing criminal charges even when acting ethically and competently would clearly hamper our ability to do our jobs.
And less you think, "it can't happen here," Schneier points out that there have already been attempts to bring civil suits against weather forecasters for erroneous predictions that resulted in death or economic loss.
So how do we defend against this? Well, you really can't nor should you lose sleep over it. Our job has always carried an element of risk and high levels of accountability. Your best defense is to act with the highest ethical and professional standards. The Italian case raises concerns but we would be negligent if we let it affect our duty to give our best professional advice to those we serve.