Tourism operators on trial over White Island volcano disaster that killed 22 people STILL haven’t even entered their pleas 18 months later
- White Island volcanic eruption in New Zealand in 2019 saw 22 people killed
- Multiple parties who were charged after the tragedy are still to enter pleas
- National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) pleaded not guilty to charges
- Next case review hearing set down for September 13 in Whakatane District Court
A trial regarding the White Island-Whakaari volcanic eruption appears many months away following a hearing in New Zealand’s Whakatane District Court on Thursday.
Last December, New Zealand’s workplace safety watchdog Worksafe laid charges against 13 organisations or individuals following the devastating 2019 eruption, in which 22 people were killed.
All but one party are yet to enter pleas due to the complex case and the mountain of paperwork to assess.
The WorkSafe investigation itself took 12 months, costing $NZ5.5 million ($A5.1 million).
Melbourne resident Krystal Browitt (pictured right) was one of the 22 victims on White Island in December of 2019 when a volcano erupted in New Zealand
Stephanie Browitt (pictured) survived the horrific ordeal in New Zealand, but suffered burns to 70 per cent of her body
A dramatic image from the White Island volcanic eruption in New Zealand (pictured) that killed 22 people in December of 2019
The charges relate to safety failings in the lead-up to the eruption, and if parties are found guilty, they face fines of up to $NZ1.5 million ($A1.4 million).
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has pleaded not guilty.
The other 12 parties have been instructed by Justice Evangelos Thomas to issue their pleas not later than August 24.
Given the intricacies and the difficulty of bringing the 13 different parties in the one action, a potential trial will still be many months away.
Justice Thomas heard arguments from counsel representing Worksafe, Kristy McDonald QC, urging the court to ‘move the matter along’, and to ask defending parties to enter pleas.
Richard Raymond, representing White Island Tours, said defendants were overwhelmed by documents to assess.
Some 3000 documents, some more than 100 pages long, have been disclosed and there are more than a thousand still to come.
Parties also argued over where future hearings should be held.
A March hearing was based in Auckland – where seven of the defendants are based – but this week’s hearing was moved to Whakatane, 300km away, the city closest to the offshore volcano.
Justice Thomas appointed local lawyer Roger Gowing to prepare a report for the court on views on what the most appropriate site would be.
The White Island volcanic eruption trial won’t start for months due to the difficulty of bringing 13 parties in the one legal action
Ten Australians died on White Island following the volcano disaster on December 9, 2019 (a rescue helicopter is pictured at the scene)
Worksafe NZ alleges 13 parties – 10 organisations and three people – were negligent in their duty of care to visitors to the island (pictured – bodies being recovered following the volcano eruption on White Island)
Mr Gowing said he had heard representations from some family of Australian victims that the case be heard in Auckland for ease of access, however the overwhelming sentiment was to hold the hearings in Whakatane.
Justice Thomas set the next case review hearing for September 13 in Whakatane.
Worksafe alleges 13 parties – 10 organisations and three people – were negligent in their duty of care to visitors to the island.
That includes tourism outlets Inflite Charters, ID Tours, Tauranga Tourism Services, White Island Tours, Kahu NZ, Volcanic Air Safaris and Aerius; as well as government agencies NEMA and GNS Science.
The three people to have been charged are the legal owners of the island; James, Peter and Andrew Buttle, as well as their ownership company Whakaari Management.