Legal questions about scientific findings

I’ve spent the last few days at the Planetary Defense Conference, listening to various talks about NEO impacts from the policy as well as science points of view. In the course of one presentation, the assertion was made that:

  1. Forecasting possible impacts could open people up to litigation if such predictions lowered the property values of an area (for instance).

following this up during a lunchtime discussion, I was credulous and said as an analogy “Surely, writing a journal article saying that such-and-such town was likely to experience an earthquake in the next 30 years couldn’t get you sued.” To which a colleague replied:

  1. If you publish a scientific finding that lowers property values, you can in fact be sued.

Obviously, IANAL. But I do see maps and charts all the time with earthquake frequencies, volcanic dangers, and the like. So I’m really not at all convinced. Are #1 and #2 true? Assume the scientists in question are acting with no malice or bias and with the purest of intentions. In fact, I’ll add a third question:

  1. If the predictions come true, does that make a difference, legally speaking?

IANAL either, but one obvious thing that comes to mind in regards to published maps of quake areas is that the burdon of proof would be on the person filing suit to prove that the map in question was, in fact, responsible for a lowering of property values. This would be difficult, I would think, if the map was published in scientific journals only. But if you publish a paper that Nowhere, ID has a 75% chance of being hit by an asteroid in the next year and some news organization finds it and publishes it and people start leaving in droves and property values plummit…

Well, nevertheless-- if it’s actually true, and/or the probability is calculated competently using accepted methods, it seems to me like one should legally be in the clear, regardless of the impact on Nowhere’s economy (no pun intended). But the clear implication from the talks was otherwise.

No, you were incredulous. Credulous means gullible.

Has NOAA ever been sued over drought forecasts? The long term ones could easily affect property values.

The question is whether you were negligent.

Anyone can be sued for anything, in the US. Welcome to America :wink:

Per Princhester, he’s right. I work in the fields of Hydrolgy and Hydraulics, pertaining to flood studies. In many of our projects we are asked to provide Base Flood Elevations for areas previously unstudied.

As is proper, we must show rigourous analyses proving that our work is thorough, scientifically robust, and carried out according to the standard of care generally followed by professional engineers in our part of the U.S.

Short answer: if you’ve done your homework, your predictions will stand the test of lawsuits.

You can be sued for anything, the question is: Are you at risk of losing anything if you do get sued? The answer to that is: If your science is sound, no. If you screwed up and dropped a decimal someplace, then maybe. After all, you’re not aiming a giant asteroid at the Earth (though I wish somebody would), you’re simply pointing out that unless somebody does something about said asteroid, property lines are going to be shifting shortly after impact. I fyou had some kind of control over the asteroid, or if you did something really stupid in your calculations, like forgetting to take into account the rotation of the Earth, then you can’t be held responsible for what your data shows. Trying to sue you for showing that asteroid XYZ is going to smack into downtown NYC on April 12th, 2047 is like trying to sue the doctor for telling you that you’ve got cancer.

Another problem that folks would have is that so far nobody has come out and said that there’s an absolute certainty that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth. All the predictions that have been made are X:Y chance of the asteroid hitting the Earth. So there’s certainly some doubt that it will smack us. This makes it harder to prove that any loss of property values could be blamed on a predicted asteroid strike.

Trouble is that anyone can be sued for anything and you have to pay to get a lawyer to defend you and all that. J.K. Rowling was the target of a frivolous lawsuit that she nonetheless had to defend (although it should have been thrown out immediately, IMHO) and, so she claims, it delayed the publication of her next book by a year.

Right. That’s along the lines of what I was thinking (I was sloppily using “get sued” as shorthand for “get sued and lose”), that if you’re acting in good faith using recognized techniques, you’re OK. However, there was speculation during the conversation we were having about having “licensed astronomers” in the future, in the way that states have licensed geologists. NinetyWt, do the people dealing with those maps belong to a society that could somehow assume the risk of liability from the members, or have licenses that could move the liability to the state?

And roger on incredulous vs. credulous-- I’m calling brain lock on that, though you may be incredulous. :wink:

Does this wish, speaking purely statistically, run afoul of the Straight Dope rule against wishing death on another poster? Surely a giant asteroid hitting the earth would kill at least one of us, unless we were all at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.



Bolding mine.

In that case, didn’t somebody else publish the damning documents?

I’m not sure I understand the question. Could you elaborate? :slight_smile:

Well, for instance-- if you’re a geologist licensed by the state of California, and you said “any houses built on this tract of land are at risk due to mudslide/earthquake/flooding/whatever”, I’d assume any suits from angry landowners would be directed against the state of California rather than you since California has found you competent and given you the right (in effect) to make those judgments.

Again, though, IANAL, just a simple astronomer mulling legal issues that never occurred to me before.

It has been my experience that the average citizen (here) isn’t fully educated about the applied sciences; and/or the scientists who work in those fields. In other words, although I’m a licensed professional engineer, considered competent to practice in the States of Alabama and Mississippi, a layperson is more likely to sue me since I’m “the one that done it”. In your hypothetical case, they are disagreeing with my professional opinion, not the fact that Mississippi licensed me.

Here’s a kind-of-an illustrative story:

FEMA updates the map for the City of Floodville. The old map was prepared under a tight budget, and FEMA’s scope only included the larger creeks. The new update includes some creeks which previously had not been studied.

XYZ Subdivision lies along the bank of Any Creek. Under the old map, Any Creek had not been studied. Under the new map, the 1%-chance floodplain for Any Creek is mapped, and several homes in XYZ Subdivision are now shown in the Special Flood Hazard Area.

These residents are angry and complain that the study “put them in the floodplain”. They don’t realize that every creek has a floodplain - whether it’s been studied & mapped or not. They see grounds for a suit against the engineer who performed the study.
Not quite exactly like your hypothetical, but related.

If you say something and property values drop you could get sued. If you say nothing and they get killed by a space rock you could get sued. I guess just do your job.