New Zealand court orders millions in fines and compensation over deadly volcanic eruption

By Thomson Reuters Feb 29, 2024 | 7:46 PM

SYDNEY (Reuters) – A New Zealand court on Friday ordered the tour booking agents and managers of an island where a volcanic eruption killed 22 people to pay survivors more than NZ$10 million ($6.1 million) and fined them around NZ$2.6 million.

Tour operators White Island Tours, Volcanic Air Safaris, Kahu New Zealand and Aerius, along with the corporate owner of the island, Whakaari Management Ltd, were found to have not sufficiently ensured the safety of visitors to the island, court filings showed.

There were 47 people on White Island, also known by the Maori name of Whakaari, when the volcano erupted on Dec. 9, 2019. Many of the survivors were badly burnt by searing gas and ash. Most of the victims were international tourists from countries including Australia, the United States and Malaysia.

Whakaari Management must pay compensation of NZ$4.88 million, while White Island Tours must pay NZ$5 million and Volcanic Air Safaris NZ$$330,000, Judge Evangelos Thomas said in his judgment in the District Court of Auckland.

The prosecutor for workplace regulator Worksafe had said during the hearing that the tour operators indicated they did not have the ability to pay fines but argued the judge should impose financial penalties even if they were not paid.

Though the tour operators did conduct risk assessments, they were fundamentally inadequate, Thomas said.

“The safety information tour operators provided to their paying customers was wholly inadequate, not sufficiently informing paying customers about the hazards, the risk, the consequences of an eruption,” the judge said.

The five companies involved were either in liquidation, no longer trading, were in a weak financial position or had no assets, the judgment said.

White Island Tours and VASL have insurance cover of NZ$5,000,000 and NZ$300,000 respectively to pay reparations to victims, though they and the other three companies did not appear to be in a position to pay the remaining fines and compensation, the judgment added.

($1 = 1.6437 New Zealand dollars)

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Alasdair Pal and Lincoln Feast.)