Whakaari/White Island eruption: Victims awarded more than $10m in reparations

3:44 pm on 1 March 2024
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Photo: Supplied/ University of Canterbury

Victims of the Whakaari/White Island eruption and their families have been awarded more than $10 million in total reparations.

In the Auckland District Court on Friday, Judge Evangelos Thomas delivered sentences for five companies that took tourists to the volcanic island before the fatal eruption in 2019.

Twenty-two people died in the eruption and 25 others were injured.

He said reparations would be paid by the islands' owner Whakaari Management Limited, White Island Tours and the helicopter company Volcanic Air Safaris.

"I adopt an individual general sum of $250,000," Judge Thomas said.

"That calculation provides for total reparation of $10.21 million."

Judge Thomas said the exact reparation amounts would be tweaked in some cases.

"I make certain adjustments to recognise those who died leaving behind dependent children, other families whose children suffered serious emotional distress, families who lost more than one loved one, those survivors who also lost family members, and the few who were fortunate enough to escape without any serious injury."

He said each of the five companies involved had failed in their duties to assess and mitigate risk.

Judge Evangelos Thomas. Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi

"None of the defendants had any volcanology expertise, they had to get risk assessments done by the appropriately qualified people," he said.

"That failure [to do so] compromised everything else they did. That failure exposed others to risk of serious injury and death."

Whakaari Management Limited was fined $1.045 million and ordered to pay $4.88 million in reparations to all of the victims and their families.

White Island Tours, which took visitors to the island via boat, was fined $517,000 and ordered to pay $5 million in reparations to the victims involved in its tours.

Volcanic Air Safaris Ltd, one of three helicopter operators that conducted tours, was fined $506,000 and ordered to pay $330,000 in reparations to the victims involved in its tours.

Volcanic Air Safaris was the only helicopter operator on the island when it erupted.

Two other operators, Aerius and Kahu NZ, were fined $290,000 and $196,000 respectively but were not ordered to pay reparations.

GNS Science fined

GNS Science was the last party to be sentenced. The agency was fined $54,000.

Judge Thomas said it had failed to adequately communicate risk to contractors.

"The risk of harm was significant," he said. "While the risk of an eruption was low on any given day, the risk of serious harm occurring should an eruption occur while people were on Whakaari was always very high."

Thomas set the starting point for the fine at $90,000 and granted a 40 percent discount to reflect the agency's early guilty plea and record of public service.

As a Crown entity, Thomas noted that any fine would have to be paid via public funds.

"GNS observes that as a public body there will be a negative impact on the important service it provides given any fine would need to come from its operating budget," he said.

"However, the public interest in holding all entities including important public entities to account outweighs that."

'Today belongs to the survivors'

WorkSafe chief executive Steve Haszard said the victim impact statements delivered in court had showed the impact of the eruption was "far wider" than just the people who were on the island.

"Today belongs to the survivors, and the whānau and friends of those who were harmed or lost their lives," he said.

"One impact has been to raise our national understanding about the obligations on businesses to do everything they can to keep people safe. Whakaari is a catastrophic example of what can go wrong when they don't."

The companies' actions on the day of the eruption put people's lives in jeopardy, Haszard said.

"People put their faith in the businesses involved in these trips. But they were not properly informed about the risks, and they were not kept safe."

WorkSafe had a duty to hold businesses to account over the tragedy, Haszard said.

He described it as "one of the worst natural disasters in Aotearoa".

All of the businesses that had control over the island or that took visitors to the island had been convicted of health and safety failings, he noted.

Financial difficulties

Judge Evangelos Thomas acknowledged that the companies may struggle to pay the reparations.

"The awards I consider to be appropriate for emotional harm will stretch the resources of those able to pay them."

Whakaari Management Ltd, as a corporate trustee, did not have a bank account and therefore no funds from which to pay a fine. Thomas did not let that impact his decision, and he addressed the company's owners, Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, directly.

"I do not relieve WML from any of its reparation or fine obligations. There is nothing to stop the Buttles, as WML's shareholders, from advancing the necessary funds to cover that obligation.

"There may be no commercial basis for doing so, but many would argue there is an inescapable moral one. Some defendants responded to the tragedy with a preparedness to put their lives at risk to help others."

"We wait to see what the Buttles will do. The world is watching."

WML did not have liability insurance and therefore reparations would have to be paid out of pocket.

White Island Tours had insurance to cover reparations but had asked to be excused from paying a fine due to its financial position.

But Thomas said there was an overwhelming public interest in the fine being imposed.

"If WIT does indeed go into liquidation, the fine will simply be a debt that follows it and remains payable like any debt," he said. "I leave it to shareholders and liquidators to deal with."

He said the same principles applied to the helicopter operators, which were in a similarly weak financial position.

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