28 Feb 2024

Whakaari defendant seeks up to 55 percent reduction in fine for guilty plea

6:47 am on 28 February 2024
Worksafe's prosecutor Kristy McDonald at the sentencing on 26 February 2024 of companies found guilty of health and safety failings in the lead-up to the deadly Whakaari White Island eruption.

Prosecutor Kristy McDonald KC at the setencing. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

The question of whether companies will be able to pay fines and reparations to survivors and the families of the Whakaari White Island eruption has been under scrutiny at the sentencing in Auckland.

The Enviroment Court heard more from the victims, families and lawyers at the second day of the sentencing on Tuesday.

Whakaari Management Limited, White Island Tours, Volcanic Air Safaris, Aerius and Kahu NZ are facing fines of up to$1.5 milion each and reparations for their health and safety failings leading up to the disaster.

A volcano with a large plume of ash.

Whakaari/White Island during the eruption. Photo: Supplied/Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

GNS Science - the sixth guilty party - will be sentenced separately later this week.

Some of the parties claim they are in no position to pay anything and another is seeking fine deductions of up to 55 percent.

Whakaari Management Limited wants a 10 percent reduction on any fine, pointing to its lack of previous convictions and its co-operation with authorities, but prosecutor Kristy McDonald KC objected to this.

"By contrast, Worksafe says 5 percent in total. The fact that there were no previous incidents, namely eruptions when tourists or workers were on Whakaari, was because of luck - not good management," said McDonald.

White Island Tours (WIT), like some other defendants, had insurance to pay for reparations for the disaster.

Worksafe wanted WIT's $5 million pool to be distributed amongst the survivors and families.

McDonald asked for $110,000 be given to each surviving victim for emotional harm; $20,000 for the family of each person who died; and $100,000 for each any dependant children whose parents had died.

The company wanted 55 percent off, due to its guilty plea, its offers to make amends, cooperation, remorse and no previous conviction.

McDonald also objected to this, and called the requests excessive.

"There may be a degree of double-dipping in a number of the factors, for example, there is some overlap between the discount sought for guilty plea, the offers to make amends and remorse, as all come from an acknowledgement of responsibility."

She also argued many of the offers to make amends was made by Ngāti Awa, and not WIT itself.

She said any requests to drop fines or reparations because of lack of funds should be dismissed.

"We say that's utterly innapropriate in this case. Worksafe submits the court should still impose reparation and fines to illustrate the severity of this offending and for the benefit of general deterants to illustrate what the otherwise appropriate financial penalties would be."

Whakaari Management Limited counsel Jaimes Cairney repeated claims its defendant was simply operating as the land owner of Whakaari, and did not have responsibility in ensuring the health and safety of the operators.

"Whakaari Management Limited as licensor or land-owner, or someone in the position of a land-owner, however we frame it, Whakaari Management Limited cannot be more culpable than the tour operators," Cairney said.

He pointed fingers at the government agencies, and their failures to effectively regulate safe operations.

"Worksafe, EMBOP, NEMA, GNS, and the New Zealand police, eyes wide open to all those parties, and that provided some comfort to the operators that appropriate experts were comfortable with the assessments of risk and the manner in which those risks were being managed."

Cairney said Worksafe was well aware of the risk.

On Wednesday, the third day of sentencing, it is expected at least two more of the defendants would make their submission to Judge Thomas.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs