by Rhodri C. Williams
Having apologized for their failure to protect victims of the Pinochet regime three decades ago, Chilean courts have now staked out a progressive position in responding to charges of government negligence that exacerbated the effects of the tsunami three years ago. According to the BBC, Chile’s Supreme Court awarded $100,000 to the survivors of Mr. Mario Ovando, who died as a result of a fatal blunder.
The court heard that following the earthquake, Mr Ovando had heard an announcement on the radio that there was no danger of a tsunami. On the basis of that he decided to stay in his home.
However, 20 minutes later his house was engulfed by huge waves. Although his relatives managed to free him and take him to hospital, Mr Ovando died three days later.
The Chilean Navy – which runs the Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service – admitted after the tsunami that it had made errors in its diagnosis and had given unclear information to government officials.
The government issued an alert, then deactivated it, then revived it only after the deadly waves had struck.
As described here in response to a UN report on reparations for victims of terrorism, the Chilean Supreme Court ruling fits into a recent pattern of establishing higher duties of care for state authorities in the face of events once written off as ‘acts of God’. And as noted by the BBC, the current case is likely to herald many more suits by other victims of the Navy’s faulty diagnosis. As such ‘pounds of cure’ accumulate in national and regional practice, one can only hope they will highlight the relative attractiveness of ounces of prevention.