NZ inquiry into White Island disaster could take a year

Official inquiries into last week’s fatal volcano eruption on White Island, New Zealand, could take up to a year, and will carry potential criminal penalties of up to five years in jail, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday December 16th. Two people whose bodies are believed to be in the waters around the island are still officially listed as missing.

The official death toll from the eruption the island also known as Whakaari, has reached 16. A further 26 people remain in hospitals in New Zealand and Australia, many in critical condition with severe burn injuries. Many of dead and injured were Australians on a day tour from Royal Caribbean Cruises vessel Ovation of the Seas, which docked back in Sydney on Monday.

There has been growing criticism that people were allowed on the island, a popular destination for day-trippers, given the risks of an active volcano.  WorkSafe, New Zealand’s primary regulator for workplace related incidents, has opened a health and safety investigation. The coroner is conducting a separate inquiry.

Worksafe can prosecute individuals and companies for breaches of health and safety laws, with penalties including fines of up to NZ$3m and jail terms of up to five years, Ardern said.

Any lawsuits filed by injured passengers are likely to be in the US courts, although no suits have yet been submitted. Royal Caribbean’s potential liability could rest on whether the eruption would be deemed by the courts to be an unforeseeable Act of God, maritime lawyers told Reuters.

“We will to continue to provide ongoing support and services to them and their families during this difficult time,” a spokeswoman for the company said on Monday.

There were 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption.

Royal Caribbean ticket terms state that the company is not liable for any injury, death or loss of property caused by an Act of God, as well as war, terrorism or other events beyond the company’s control.

Robert Kritzman, an attorney with Baker Donelson in Miami, told Reuters that Royal Caribbean would probably argue the disaster was an extraordinary event that no one could have reasonably foreseen.  “If a volcano were to erupt, clearly that isn’t negligence on anyone’s part, that’s nature,” said Kritzman, a former general counsel with Norwegian Cruise Line.

Part of any case might therefore depend on what the cruise line knew or should have known and what they told passengers about indications of increased volcanic activity.

Carlos Llinás Negret, an attorney with Nelson & Fraenkel said that “there are tremors, there are earthquakes and people monitor that. It all depends on what the cruise knew, and when they knew it.”

Geological hazard tracker GeoNet raised the alert level for the White Island volcano in November, It said on December 3rd that “the volcano may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal.” The cruise line had described White Island on its web site as “one of the most active volcanoes in the world”.

Were any blame ascribed to a third-party operator, passengers would have to show that Royal Caribbean did not take proper care to vet the operator, lawyers said.

Royal Caribbean is using the act of God defence against a class action about a powerful storm in 2016 that hit the ship Anthem of the Seas off the eastern United States. Passengers’ legal team have said that the company knew of the risks of the storm, but tried to outrun it.