Barberi et al v Prosecutor

Geographical Area
Case Name
Barberi et al v Prosecutor
Case Reference
[2016] Sez. IV, n.12748, 20 November 2015, published on 25 March 2016 (Cassazione Penale)
Name of Court
Supreme Court of Cassation, Rome, Italy (Corte Suprema di Cassazione, Roma, Italia)
Key Facts
The 2009 L’Aquila earthquake occurred in the region of Abruzzo, in central Italy. The main shock occurred at 3.30am on 6 April 2009 and was rated 5.8 or 5.9 on the Richter magnitude scale and 6.3 on the moment magnitude scale. Its’ epicentre was near the town of L’Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo, which together with surrounding villages suffered the most damage. There had been several thousand foreshocks and aftershocks since December 2008, more than thirty of which had a Richter magnitude greater than 3.5. The earthquake was felt throughout central Italy; 308 people are known to have died.

The seven members of the ‘Major Risks National Committee’, an advisory body of the Italian civil protection system, that met in L’Aquila on 31 March 2009, were sentenced by the L’Aquila Trial Chamber to six years imprisonment for the crimes of manslaughter and multiple culpable injuries, for providing the victims with erroneously reassuring information, thus inducing them to suspend some life-saving habits they had been observing, such as leaving home at any earth tremor above a given threshold. The court argued that these reassurances convinced people to stay at home on the night of 5-6 April 2009, a conduct that caused death or injury as a result of the collapse of their respective homes.

The L’Aquila Court of Appeal overturned the judgment of the Tribunal, acquitting six of the seven defendants and reducing the sentence for the one remaining defendant – who was the only civil protection officer and the highest representative of the National Department of Civil Protection at that time in the area – to a 2-year period of imprisonment.

The Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of the latter due to an interview he released to a local television station. In that interview, before the expert gathering held that day, he gave to citizens – without first verifying its scientific substantiation – inexact information on the non-relevance of the seismic activity in progress, stating that the tremor swarm was part of a phenomenology that was normal from the point of view of seismic phenomena and that there was no danger.

The Court of Appeal maintained such conduct to be negligent, since the accused made his determinations on the seismic activity without being an expert (indeed, having repeatedly declared himself incompetent in the matter) and without waiting to verify, at the expert meeting, the correctness of the concepts that he was about to certify.

The reduction of the sentence was justified since:
a) the degree of fault qualified as minor;
b) the inexistence of the defendant’s capacity to commit a crime;
c) the existence of other contributing causes.
Decision and Reasoning
The Supreme Court of Cassation upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court held that the ‘Major Risks National Committee’, which provides information to the public, exercises a concrete operational function of prevention and protection, and is to this end required to adapt the content of public communication to an optimal level of transparency and scientific correctness of the information disseminated, and to ensure that its language is clear, objectively comprehensible and explicit.

The Court found that in the statements he delivered to the media, the sentenced defendant contravened the professional standards that civil protection officers have to observe in their activities of risk prevention and protection. Indeed, the capacity of disaster response officers to influence the behaviour of citizens through institutional communication, including press conferences, is confirmed by the language of the Italian law on Civil Protection, which lists ‘information to the population’ among the ‘non-structural means’ of disaster prevention. Negligence in performing communication tasks may therefore provide a causative link (as a form of psychological causality) between the officer’s fault and the death of those individuals who omitted to take prudential measures in the eve of an earthquake, based on the reassurances of an authoritative source.
The Supreme Court of Cassation upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal of six acquittals and one conviction.
This case law summary was developed as part of the Disaster Law Database (DISLAW) project, and is not an official record of the case.