A New Zealand court has found the owners of White Island, also known as Whakaari, the offshore volcano which erupted in 2019 killing 22 people, guilty on one charge of breaching workplace safety laws.
On Tuesday, the Auckland District Court ruled Whakaari Management Limited — the holding company of landowners Andrew, James and Peter Buttle — had not met its obligations to visitors to the volcano.
At the time of the eruption on December 9, 2019, 47 tourists and tour guides were on the island, including 24 Australians, 14 of whom were killed.
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Many had booked day trips while visiting on cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.
Twenty-two people were killed, either on the island or while receiving care for severe burns and volcanic ash inhalation, while others were injured, many severely.
The eruption killed 22 people. Credit: AAP
The active stratovolcano was assessed by GNS Science at “level two” during the eruption, indicating “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.
Annie Lu, who suffered severe burns, said during the trial, tour organisers were dismissive of that assessment.
“They mentioned level two but said it was nothing to worry about,” she said.
In his judgement, Justice Evangelos Thomas lashed “astonishing failures” of safety audits given “obvious risks”, saying Whakaari Management Ltd (WML) needed to take expert advice.
“The expert evidence … was also common sense,” he said.
“In WML’s case, it should have appreciated that it could (not) rely on risk assessment work being done by others to relieve it of its own obligation in relation to risk … it needed to stop and re-evaluate,” he said.
“It should have been no surprise that Whakaari could erupt at any time, and without warning, at the risk of death and serious injury.”
The recovery operation on Whakaari lasted several days. Credit: New Zealand Defence Force
Thomas said “the expert evidence” was “also common sense”.
He also paid tribute to the survivors who gave evidence through the trial, including Australian Jesse Langford, who lost his parents and sister.
“Each were remarkable, showed great strength, insight, poise. and dignity. They were a powerful and respectful voice for all of the victims,” Thomas said.
“I thank them for their strength and courage.”
A further charge was dismissed.
The verdict comes almost four years after the eruption, with sentencing delayed until a two-week hearing beginning in February, when victims are likely to be invited to present impact statements before the court.
Maximum punishment for the safety failings is a fine of $NZ1.5 million ($A1.4 million).
Tourism has not yet resumed on the offshore volcano.
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