Italy’s Government for Change faces a legal conundrum the solution of which could create lasting precedent

My last post on Italy’s Government of Change ended in the hope that Italy’s lucky star shine brightly this fall. But that was before the tragedies of Bologna and Genova and more recently, Pollino in Calabria.

The first catastrophic accident wreaked death and destruction on the perennially overcrowded Bologna Beltway on August 6 when a truck carrying Liquid Propane Gas plowed into another truck and exploded. The second catastrophic accident struck Genoa (or “Zena” as the locals affectionately call their City) on the vigil of Ferragosto, which since the days of Ancient Rome marks the peak of the summer holiday season for all Italians.

On or about Noon in the midst of a terrifying thunderstorm with lightning and strong winds the Morandi Bridge, a suspension bridge spanning the Polcevera River on the A10 highway that cuts Genoa in two on the West end (also nicknamed, “Zena’s Brooklyn Bridge” because of the similarities with New York’s Brooklyn Bridge), suddenly collapsed sending the many cars and trucks crowded onto the bridge high above Genoa down into the shallow almost dry river-bed, hundreds of feet below. The death toll stands at 43 and it could have been even worse.

When things have a tendency to go wrong, Italians will sometimes say: “Piove sul bagnato”, (literally, “it rains where it is [already] wet”. Unfortunately, Italians also have another saying, “Non c’è il due sense il tre”. And sure enough, after Genoa on August 21 down in Calabria a group of hikers mostly parents and their kids decided to go visit the Pollino Park and its deep gorges and canyons. The morning seemed promising but suddenly as the group of some 10 to 20 hikers entered the park it started to rain. Before you know it a flash flood had raised water levels to over 2.7 meters, catching a group of tourists by surprise in a tight gorge. The death toll stands at 10.

In light of the above exceptional circumstances, Moody’s the financial rating agency announced postponement of its decision to further downgrade Italy until October.

When disaster strikes in a civil law Country like Italy, the tendency is to look for who the person or persons responsible for the accident may be in order to start criminal investigations. Italy has practically constitutionalized three degree proceedings (meaning a first instance [trial] and two appeals) for everyone, including public prosecutors that get three darts with which to nail their suspects. Since incorporating into Italy’s former inquisitorial system many aspects of the common-law adversarial system, the outcome of this “new” criminal justice system has been less than satisfactory. Italian “trials” take forever and after ten or twenty years of less than continuous hearings rarely issue convincing sentences. Mass murderers are unlucky if they get sentenced to twenty years in jail. There is no death penalty and rarely is anyone sentenced to life. Most crooks are in and out in a matter of months. Still Italians prefer throwing the criminal code at someone rather than sue for damages. Why? Because civil law suits take even longer and damages are relatively skimpy compared to what one can expect in a common law jurisdiction in less than half the time.

This Monday, Italy’s heralded “il Corriere della Sera” newspaper, in its insert on the economy ran an article on disasters similar to the collapse of Genoa’s “Brooklyn Bridge” and how other Countries handled similar emergencies. Italy’s Government for Change seems hell-bent on making sure catastrophic accidents do not happen again in the future and has threatened to take away the highway concession granted “Autostrade” a Benetton Group Company controlled by Atlantia responsible for the A10 and Zena’s Brooklyn Bridge, built in 1967. The bridge was one of the few concrete suspensions bridges in the World. When it collapsed it had just turned 51. And Benetton has said it is ready to rebuild the “Morandi Bridge” in steel not in concrete, within eight months from the Government’s go ahead.

In the Corriere’s long article on “The Catastrophes that Change Capitalism” (betraying its anti-capitalist bias), the Corriere inadvertently does the Government of Change a favor. The author Massimo Gaggi describes the terrible Union Carbide disaster of 1984 in Bhopal, India, where some 3,800 people perished as a consequence of the negligent leakage of deadly chemicals by the Multinational. At that time the Indian Government fined the Multinational 100 Thousand Rupees worth then Two Thousand Dollars (US). In 2010 British Petroleum was fined 20 Billion US Dollars for its negligent spillage of oil in consequence to the explosion of one of its oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico off of Corpus Christi, Texas. In 2015 Volkswagen was fined 1 Billion Euros for tweaking the software on their diesel cars to get around the EU CO2 emission ceilings. And Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals will have to pay some 4.7 Billion US Dollars in damages to 22 women that used its talcum containing the cancerous substance of asbestos.

However, in 2007, ThyssenKrupp owned and operated a steel plant in Turin, Italy, where a fire broke out killing 7 workers. The Company reserved itself the right not to invest in safety measures because the plant was destined to be decommissioned and closed down, which it was shortly thereafter. Six managers were nevertheless investigated by Italian Public Prosecutors and brought to trial. Found guilty, they were sentenced to jail terms for second degree murder.

Everywhere else but in Italy, criminal negligence if and when ascertained carries heavy fines or damages. People are rarely incarcerated for negligent acts that are not malicious or willful. Even in civil law jurisdiction like Germany. To the contrary, the message in Italy seems to be we would rather throw you in jail that take your money. A highwayman’s dream come true. The deterrence of which escapes me. What say you, friends?