Scientists and Legal Accountability: Lessons from the L’Aquila Case

27 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2015

See all articles by Alessandra Arcuri

Alessandra Arcuri

Erasmus School of Law; Erasmus Initiative of Inclusive Prosperity

Marta Simoncini

King's College London

Date Written: 2015


On 6 April 2009, an earthquake hit the city of L’Aquila in Italy, destroying much of the historical centre, injuring thousands of people and killing more than 300. In an unprecedented verdict, in October 2012 the court of first instance in L’Aquila condemned for manslaughter the six Italian scientists, members of a national scientific advisory committee. The reasoning underpinning the verdict centres around the scientists’ poor assessment and communication of the seismic risk. Two years later, in November 2014, the Appeal Court of L’Aquila reversed the first instance verdict, acquitting the scientists. This trial is of paramount importance, being the first (criminal) trial to regulatory scientists in contemporary history. Unsurprisingly, the first instance verdict has attracted much criticism. In contrast to most commentaries harshly criticizing the verdict, we find that the first instance verdict invites broader reflection on the role and possible responsibility of scientists in risk governance. We take the L’Aquila trial as a case study and look at the general relevance of this case for a debate on accountability of regulatory science. This article defends the view that, in a world where scientists retain a certain degree of regulatory authority, they should be held accountable for their contribution to regulating risks. While we find criminal liability not necessarily the most appropriate way to establish accountability, it is equally incorrect to have no accountability at all. Drawing on the L’Aquila case, this article shows the overall desirability of a legal framework for accountability of regulatory science.

Keywords: Regulatory science; Accountability; Risk regulation; Judicial review; L'Aquila earthquake

Suggested Citation

Arcuri, Alessandra and Simoncini, Marta, Scientists and Legal Accountability: Lessons from the L’Aquila Case (2015). EUI Department of Law Research Paper No. 2015/17. Available at SSRN: or

Alessandra Arcuri (Contact Author)

Erasmus School of Law; Erasmus Initiative of Inclusive Prosperity ( email )

Burgemeester Oudlaan 50
3000 DR Rotterdam


Marta Simoncini

King's College London ( email )

United Kingdom

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