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Whakaari owners convicted on NZ volcano safety charge

A New Zealand court has convicted the owners of White Island/Whakaari, the offshore volcano which erupted in 2019 killing 22 people, on one charge of breaching workplace safety laws.

On Tuesday, the Auckland District Court ruled Whakaari Management Limited (WML) - the holding company of landowners Andrew, James and Peter Buttle - had not met obligations to visitors to the volcano.

The company faces a seven-figure fine when it is sentenced next year.

At the time of the eruption in December 2019, 47 tourists and guides were on the island, including 24 Australians, 14 of whom were killed.

Many had booked day trips while visiting on cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

Twenty-two people were killed, either on the island or while receiving care for severe burns and inhaling volcanic ash, while others were injured, many severely.

The active stratovolcano was assessed by monitoring agency GNS Science at "level two" during the eruption, indicating "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest".

Australian tourist Annie Lu, who suffered severe burns, said tour organisers were dismissive of that assessment.

"They mentioned level two but said it was nothing to worry about," she told the trial.

Judge Evangelos Thomas at the Whakaari White Island eruption trial
Justice Evangelos Thomas has ruled on Whakaari Management's guilt over the White Island tragedy.

In his 30-page judgment, Justice Evangelos Thomas lashed "astonishing failures" of safety audits given "obvious risks".

"The expert evidence was also common sense," he said.

"It should have been no surprise ... that Whakaari could erupt at any time, and without warning, with the risk of death and serious injury.

"Without properly assessing this risk, WML had little chance of successfully managing it."

He also paid tribute to the survivors who gave evidence through the trial, including Australians Jesse Langford, who lost his parents and sister.

"Each were remarkable, showed great strength, insight, poise and dignity. They were a powerful and respectful voice for all of the victims," Justice Thomas said.

"I thank them for their strength and courage."

A billboard advertising White Island Tours in Whakatane, New Zealand
Two White Island tour guides were among those killed during the eruption.

New Zealand's workplace safety watchdog Worksafe and the police investigated compliance on the island leading up to the eruption, when it was still a popular tourist attraction.

Their probe produced charges to 10 organisations and three individuals: Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, who inherited the island and owned it through a family trust.

The Buttles used WML to license tourist groups to visit for profit.

Prosecutor Kirsty McDonald said the Buttles showed little interest in the risky day-to-day tourism operations.

"Profit should never come before safety," she said during the trial.

Justice Thomas found WML guilty of breaching one section of the Health and Safety at Work Act as it "manages and controls a workplace" and had a duty to individuals.

He found WML not guilty of a second breach relating to the conduct of the business.

The verdicts come almost four years after the eruption, with sentencing delayed until a two-week hearing beginning in February when victims are likely to be invited to present impact statements before the court.

WML was the last of the 13 charged parties to reach a verdict.

Five organisations pleaded guilty and were convicted in the build-up to trial, including White Island Tours - who had taken the majority of killed and injured tourists to the island on the day of the eruption - and geological research institute GNS Science.

Others had charges dismissed, including the Buttles - who were also charged as individuals - the National Emergency Management Agency, and two travel management companies.

One other, tour company Inflite Charters, pleaded guilty in March 2022 and has already been found liable for $NZ267,500 ($A245,200) in fines and costs.

Maximum punishment for the safety failings is a fine of $NZ1.5 million ($A1.4 million).



* Whakaari Management Ltd (the Buttles' holding company which manages the island) - found guilty at trial in October 2023

* GNS Science (geoscience research institute) - pleaded guilty to reduced charge in May 2023

* White Island Tours Ltd (tour company) - pleaded guilty in June 2023

* Volcanic Air Safaris Ltd (tour company) - pleaded guilty in July 2023

* Aerius Ltd (tour company) - pleaded guilty in July 2023

* Kahu NZ Ltd (tour company) - pleaded guilty in July 2023


* Inflite Charters Ltd (tour company) - pleaded guilty in March 2022, found liable for $NZ267,500 ($A245,200) in fines and costs


* Andrew, James and Peter Buttle (owners) - charges dismissed in September 2023

* National Emergency Management Agency (government department) - charges dismissed in May 2022

* ID Tours New Zealand Ltd (travel management company) - charges dismissed September 2023

* Tauranga Tourism Services Ltd (agent for White Island Tours Ltd) - charges dismissed September 2023