6 Oct 2022

Owners of Whakaari / White Island argue for charges against them to be dropped

9:00 pm on 6 October 2022
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Whakaari / White Island erupted in December 2019, killing twenty-two people and injuring dozens more. Photo: Supplied/ University of Canterbury

By Kate Green

The family who owns Whakaari / White Island today argued in court for charges against them to be dropped.

But WorkSafe rejects that, saying the Buttle brothers did nothing to protect its visitors - and they should have.

The volcano erupted in December 2019, killing twenty-two people and injuring dozens more.

After the disaster, WorkSafe filed 20 charges against 13 organisations and individuals for failing to ensure the safety of tourists who visited the island on guided tours.

The company owned by Andrew, James and Peter Buttle - Whakaari Management Ltd (WML) - is charged with failing to understand the island's hazards or make sure there was a safe way to evacuate.

The Buttles have owned the island since 1936, when it was bought by their grandfather, Auckland stock broker George Raymond Buttle.

But the family's lawyer, David Neutze, told the Auckland District Court the family had little influence over the tours.

Neutze said tour companies were granted permission by WML to access the island through various licensing agreements, but from that point on did not control the outcomes of those tours.

Tour companies were required to meet health and safety obligations in each agreement.

"If you look at almost every lease, they put [health and safety] obligations on [...] licensees", Neutze said.

Neutze argued the charges against the brothers were defective, as they did not lay out the steps that should have been taken, and therefore where the Buttles had failed.

WorkSafe prosecutor Kirsty McDonald KC argued there were "fundamental, reasonable steps a director must take to discharge their due diligence" - know their obligations, the risks, devote sufficient resource to managing those risks and monitor the company to make sure they are addressed.

There were "myriad" ways they could have fulfilled their due diligence on health and safety, she said.

"We say, they did nothing."

The hearing continues in front of Judge Evangelos Thomas tomorrow.

Charge against GNS dropped

Earlier in the day, one of two charges against GNS Science for failures during the Whakaari/White Island eruption was dropped.

The judge ruled that a previous decision to drop charges against the National Emergency Management Agency weakened the case against GNS.

The remaining charge against GNS, relating to the safety of helicopter pilots, will go to trial.

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