New Zealand, [Date] – In a groundbreaking ruling, Whakaari Management, a company responsible for licensing tours to White Island, has been found guilty of significant lapses that led to the White Island volcano disaster of 2019. The verdict, delivered by Judge Evangelos Thomas, highlights what he described as “astonishing failures” on the part of Whakaari Management, setting a significant legal precedent.
This case, brought forth by New Zealand’s regulatory authority, Worksafe NZ, marks one of the most extensive actions of its kind in the country. Whakaari Management now faces potential fines of up to NZ$1.5 million ($928,000; £724,000) for its negligence in ensuring the safety of visitors to White Island.
Thirteen parties were initially charged in connection with the disaster, with six having pleaded guilty to various charges. However, six others had their charges dismissed during the proceedings.
The judge dismissed a second charge against Whakaari Management related to the safety of its own workers. While the Buttle brothers, James, Andrew, and Peter, who own the company, were also on trial as individuals, they had their charges regarding breaches of New Zealand’s workplace health and safety legislation dismissed last month.
Whakaari Management’s defense had argued that it was merely a landowner and did not actively control tours to the island or how they were conducted. However, Judge Thomas asserted that the company held responsibility for the management and control of the active volcano. He emphasized that it had failed in its duty to minimize the inherent risks associated with White Island.
Notably, White Island, also known as Whakaari in Māori, had been exhibiting volcanic activity since 2011, making the possibility of eruptions known. The judge noted that the eruption should not have come as a surprise and that the risk of death and serious injury should have been acknowledged.
The December 2019 eruption claimed the lives of almost half of the 47 people present on the island, including 17 Australians, three Americans, and two New Zealanders. Additionally, 25 individuals sustained injuries, many of them suffering from severe burns.
The White Island tragedy prompted the most extensive and complex investigation ever undertaken by WorkSafe NZ, which faced criticism for its lack of monitoring activities on the island between 2014 and 2019.
Since the eruption, tourism activities on White Island have not resumed, with the consequences of that fateful day continuing to reverberate. Some tourists, who had purchased tour tickets to Whakaari through Royal Caribbean Cruises, have already reached settlements after suing the Florida-based company in the United States.