Victims and family members of those killed in the Whakaari/White Island eruption have filed a string of lawsuits against cruise operator Royal Caribbean, saying it failed to warn them of the active volcano’s risks.
Twenty-two people, including several passengers on an excursion from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, were killed when the volcano erupted on December 9, 2019.
Court documents filed in the United States and reported this week by local media include claims Royal Caribbean failed to properly impress upon its passengers just how dangerous a visit to the volcano, off the coast of Whakātane, could be.
Florida attorney Michael Winkleman is representing several plaintiffs taking action against Royal Caribbean and Whakatāne tour company White Island Tours Ltd.
Winkleman’s clients include Matthew Urey and Lauren Barham from the US state of Virginia, who were caught in the eruption while honeymooning aboard the Ovation of the Seas. Both were severely burnt.
Winkleman is also representing the family of Mayuari and Pratap Singh, an Indian-American couple from Atlanta, Georgia, who were killed in the eruption.
According to the Singh complaint, Royal Caribbean referred to White Island as “one of the most active volcanoes in the world”, with an “active” volcano, lawyers say, being defined only as having had at least one eruption in the last 10,000 years.
The plaintiffs claim neither Royal Caribbean nor White Island Tours explained to them before the excursion that an increase in volcanic activity on the island ahead of their visit put them at risk of being caught in the middle of a catastrophic eruption.
On November 18, 2019, seismic monitoring agency GNS Science lifted White Island’s volcano alert rating to level 2, indicating “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.
Six days later, the area was struck by a magnitude-5.9 earthquake, centred about 10 kilometres northeast of the island.
Court documents also point to a 2019 study that looked at past violent explosions on White Island, including in 2012, 2013 and 2016.
The study focused largely on the 2016 eruption with its authors concluding the eruptions “clearly pose a significant hazard to the tourists.”
“To compound poor forecasting, these areas are frequently popular with tourists and eruption hazard footprints may be poorly constrained, creating an elevated risk to life and safety,” the study found.
The lawsuit alleges Royal Caribbean “failed to notify passengers” of the numerous eruptions since 2000, the increased volcanic activity, alert level rise, or that seismic activity in the area meant an increased risk of eruption.
Winkleman argues that since Royal Caribbean set up, advertised, and sold the tour, the company had an obligation to closely monitor volcanic activity.
He described off-ship excursions as a “huge moneymaker” for Royal Caribbean, as it often split the revenue with tour contractors.
The cruise ship company’s materials referenced in court documents indicated that the White Island tour was priced around US$260 (NZ$380) at the time of the eruption.
Royal Caribbean has not yet responded to the latest lawsuits, but challenges to others filed by victims have so far been unsuccessful.
In November 2020, WorkSafe filed charges against 13 individuals and organisations, some dating back to 2016.
The charges do not relate to events on the day of the eruption or the rescue efforts.
Among those charged were Whakaari owners Andrew, James and Peter Buttle and Whakaari Management Ltd, the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, the National Emergency Management Agency, White Island Tours, Volcanic Air Safaris, Aerius Ltd, Kahu NZ, Inflite Charters, ID Tours New Zealand and Tauranga Tourism Services.
All have pleaded not guilty and will stand trial in 2023.