Whakaari: Island's owners apologise 'unreservedly' to victims of 2019 eruption

3:00 pm on 4 March 2024
View of Whakaari / White Island from a monitoring flight on 31 August, 2022.

Whakaari erupted in December 2019, killing and injuring people on the island. Photo: GNS

The family who own Whakaari/White Island have apologised "unreservedly" to all those killed and injured in the 2019 eruption but say they have no insurance to fund reparations to victims.

Andrew, James and Peter Buttle own Whakaari Management - the company that, for a fee, granted access to the island.

The company is among the parties sentenced last week for safety failings leading up to the disaster in which 22 people died and 25 others were injured when the island - a popular tourist site - erupted.

The apology has been delivered through the company's lawyer, James Cairney, who said the three brothers felt "tremendous" weight from what had occurred.

"They unreservedly apologise to all of those who have been harmed by their actions or inactions. They did want to convey that because they're good people, the people behind the company are good people," Cairney said.

"They feel tremendous weight from what has occurred."

Cairney said the three Buttles had listened to every victim impact statement delivered in court during last week's sentencing, and had a close relationship with some of the victims.

"Every single person in the room, my clients included, our hearts just go out to every single one of those victims."

Collectively, the five companies sentenced were ordered to pay $10.21 million in reparations and about $2m in fines.

Research agency GNS Science was separately fined $54,000 for failing to fully communicate to contracted helicopter pilots the risks of flying to Whakaari/White Island.

Judge Evangelos Thomas presides over day 2 of the  Whakaari White Island eruption trial at the Auckland Environment Court.
12 July 2023. New Zealand Herald photograph by Jason Oxenham

Judge Evangelos Thomas Photo: NZ Herald / Jason Oxenham

Judge Evangelos Thomas said the people injured, and the families of those killed, would each receive $250,000 - but that figure would be adjusted, for example, in cases where children were left without parents or where families lost more than one loved one.

Whakaari Management was fined $1m and ordered to pay $4.8m in reparations to all victims and their families.

White Island Tours has already indicated its insurance would cover the $5m in reparations the company has been ordered to pay, but that it was unable to afford the fine and would likely fold.

Cairney said Whakaari Management had no such insurance.

"Unlike White Island Tours, they didn't have an insurance policy for the simple reason they didn't consider they had a duty and they didn't consider they had activities on the island that required insurance," he said.

"The judge has said they're wrong in that respect and the judge's findings proceeded on that basis so it's a double whammy in that respect."

Cairney said the Buttles would consider their options over the coming weeks.

"Simply put, Whakaari Management doesn't have enough money to pay that sum and the family will need to consider all of their options."

He would not confirm if insolvency was among those options, except to say "when a company doesn't have money liquidation tends to follow".

"There are options and people will appreciate that this may or not be the end of the matter, I can't say."

Judge Thomas did not mince words in his sentencing notes, released on Friday.

"Whakaari Management claims to have no assets. It says it never had a bank account so never held any funds. WorkSafe accepts it cannot argue with that claim," he said.

"That must be difficult for survivors and families to stomach."

Judge Thomas said payments from tour operators to access the island, under Whakaari Management's agreements, should have gone to the company owned by the three Buttle brothers.

"The Buttles therefore appear to have profited handsomely from tours to Whakaari. This case, like many others, sadly reveals how simply corporate structures can be used to thwart meaningful responses to safety breaches."

He said there was nothing to stop the Buttles, as Whakaari Management's shareholders, from advancing the necessary funds to cover the reparations to victims.

"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," Judge Thomas said.

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

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