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Unveiling the Tragedy: Whakaari Management Found Guilty in White Island Eruption Aftermath

The Shocking Failures, Legal Consequences, and the Unsettling Impact on New Zealand's Adventure Tourism Industry

By: Beth Templeton

In December 2019, the White Island volcano erupted, killing 22 people. Now four years later, Whakaari Management Limited, a company which licences tours to the island, has been found guilty of not “minimising risk”. The company now faces up to NZ$1.5M, which is equivalent to £724,000 in fines. It has now been discovered that the volcano had been showing signs of unrest for weeks before the eruption happened. 

Picture by: USGS Government

The volcano is New Zealand’s most active volcano and has been erupting since 2011. The judge that ruled the company guilty in the case said the company had a duty to minimise risk and carry out proper risk assessments, as well as engage with necessary experts. He ruled that their failure to do so is what ultimately led to the death and injury of those on the island. 

The disaster led to the most extensive and complex investigation in history undertaken by WorkSafe NZ. There were thirteen parties all together that were charged over the disaster - and White Island has ceased all tourist activity since the eruption. The judge, Evangelos Thomas criticised the company, saying there were “astonishing failures” by the company, and that is ultimately what killed the 22 people. He also said that “The expert evidence […] was common sense” highlighting the naivety and ignorance of the company to protect those who needed to be kept safe. 


However, the disaster has also highlighted the limitations of New-Zealand's no fault compensation system. This scheme that covers accident compensation means that the victims will have all costs of treatment for injuries sustained in New Zealand; however, it bars them from suing for negligence. This can be seen as a negative clause as it has led to the rise of extreme tourism and dangerous activities being accessed and enabled by private companies. They often charge a lot of money to take tourists to dangerous areas of the country - without listing the full health and safety dangers present. 


Simon Milne, a tourism professor at Auckland University of Technology stated “Our accident compensation system has basically underwritten and enabled the development of adventure experiences and products that would have difficulty in being established elsewhere around the world.” 


Tourists also believed that they were not represented by the Whakaari management with the real risks either, and were misled in terms of how dangerous it could be; the Volcano was active, however some of the tourists claimed they were not fully aware of the dangers that came with this.           Mother of Hayden Marshall-Inman, who died on the island, said the verdict was “very emotional”. “We feel like we're not sitting around waiting for something - we've had an answer today which means we can move forward”.


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