Whakaari / White Island eruption: Cruise company could face lawsuits - legal expert

7:05 am on 16 December 2019

Royal Caribbean cruise company could face multiple lawsuits overseas if passengers caught up in the Whakaari / White Island eruption bought their tickets for the island tour outside of New Zealand, a legal expert says.

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Many of the 47 tourists who were on White Island when it erupted were passengers from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship. Photo: RNZ / Justine Murray

Of the 47 people on White Island last Monday, there were 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two British, two Chinese and one Malaysian. Many of them were passengers on the cruise liner Ovation of the Seas which is owned by Royal Caribbean.

While there was a slim chance punitive damages could be awarded if a New Zealand-based party was found to have been reckless or negligent, Accident Compensation laws prevented lawsuits for personal damages being laid in this country.

However, lawsuits would likely be filed overseas, particularly in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia, said an honorary academic at the University of Auckland's law faculty, Bill Hodge.

For example, American passengers who bought tickets from a travel agency in the US would be able to file a lawsuit because Royal Caribbean does business in the United States, he said.

"I would bet you that at this very moment there are what we call contingency-fee lawyers, which means no-win no fee, looking for the families ... and they will sign them up for an action which is speculative."

Their argument would likely be that Ovation Of The Seas staff did not make passengers fully aware of the risks of the White Island Tours excursion to the crater, he said.

"Were they told this is the highest level of warning that the geological volcanic experts in New Zealand can give without it actually erupting? Were they told that?

"Yes they did put their signature on something, but if you're not told the full story then you're not giving informed consent."

Royal Caribbean's sister company, Celebrity Cruises, was successfully sued in Miami for injuries to its passengers when they were involved in a bus crash in Akaroa in 2017.

In that case, they argued under General Maritime Law that the company failed to warn about the risks of the excursion. The case was settled last year.

ACC expert Don Rennie said tourists affected by the tragedy should contact their travel insurer in the first instance.

"Check with them to see if any action can be taken in relation to advice they were given when they came to New Zealand about the injuries or dangers they maybe exposed to and whether they should have particular insurance to cover that," he said.

New Zealand's adventure tourism industry has been fuelled by ACC laws, because companies don't have to pay compensation if things go wrong, Hodge said.

"Are we more reckless or more negligent? I don't know. But the argument certainly would be that you wouldn't be taking Americans to the top of a volcano in California, because you couldn't get insurance," he said.

ACC had not yet tallied the claims relating to the Whakaari disaster. Medical costs of international patients were covered by ACC while patients were in New Zealand and the families of visitors who had died were eligible for funeral grants and one-off payments to spouses and children.

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