Judge awards Whakaari White Island victims $10m in compensation - but there's a catch

A judge has awarded victims of the Whakaari White Island eruption $10 million in compensation - though they're likely to only see half of that.

Twenty-two people died and 25 were injured in the disaster on December 9, 2019 and they were front and centre of District Court Judge Evangelos Thomas' comments.

"Your stories have been heartbreaking but they have also been inspiring. It has been a humble privilege to hear them. I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we all wish you very well," Thomas said.

Thomas said their mental suffering was unprecedented in such a court case in New Zealand, let alone their physical suffering.

"Those who survived suffered excruciating or traumatic injuries, usually burns. The treatment was often painful, arduous and disheartening. For many it remains ongoing," said Thomas.

The judge said the defendants, the island's owners Whakaari Management Limited (WML) (a company whose directors were James, Andrew and Peter Buttle), White Island Tours and three helicopter companies - Volcanic Air Safaris, Kahu NZ and Aerius - all failed to conduct adequate risk assessment for the profitable business of taking tourists to Whakaari.

"Each defendant used an active volcano to make money. Whakaari is highly eruptive and has been for centuries, previous eruptions have resulted in fatalities and eruptions are impossible to predict," said Thomas.

The venture though had been supported by public tourism agencies and emergency management bodies had created safety and evacuation plans.

Even WorkSafe, which took the case against the defendants, had given operators a health and safety tick.

"Astonishingly, the audits did not cover assessment of volcanic risk, the very risk that made the audits necessary in the first place," said Thomas.

But when a similar eruption occurred overnight in 2016, the judge said all bets should have been off.

"At that point all defendants should have paused and recognised that they could not rely on what they understood was in place."

The judge said the owners generated significant income, which WorkSafe estimates at a million dollars a year, but the owner's management company WML never received a cent. That went into a Buttle family trust.

"WorkSafe accepts it cannot argue with that claim, that must be difficult for survivors and families to stomach," said Thomas.

Nevertheless the judge urged WML to pay $5 million in reparations and $1.1 million in fines.

"There may not be commercial reasons to advance but many would argue there is a moral one. Some defendants responded to the tragedy with a preparedness to put their lives at risk to help others. We wait to see what the Buttles will do. The world is watching," said the judge.

The victims released a statement through a WorkSafe spokesperson. In it, they said the judge had reflected what they were feeling.

The spokesperson said going through this together they had found strength as a unit, a bond they didn't want to break.

The judge awarded a total of $10 million to the victims, roughly in the order of $250,000 each, although he refused to identify individual reparations. Because the Buttles cannot pay that figure will be closer to $100,000.

But in their statement the victims said this was less about money than it was about finishing a chapter.

Their statement added that they wished the Buttles had been in court for the sentencing. They were often present during the trial but haven't been seen in court during this sentencing week.

WML's lawyer James Cairney spoke to Newshub after he had received instructions from his clients in Nelson late this afternoon.

Cairney said today was 100 percent about the victims and his clients had listened online to every single word of this week's Victim Impact Statements.

He said they apologised unreservedly to the victims for their actions and inactions on the island.

However, his clients questioned the need of the judge to refer to the individual morality of Andrew, James and Peter Buttle.

The chairman of Ngati Awa Holdings Paul Quinn, which ran White Island Tours, has been at the trial throughout and outside court said he was deeply sorry. The tour company had issued a formal apology in court on Wednesday.

"It was important to support the victims fundamentally in terms of the pain they have suffered in this process," said Quinn.

Quinn believes no one will ever set foot on the island again.

WorkSafe, whose glowing health and safety auditing was a mitigating factor for the defendants, released a statement from its chief executive Steve Haszard.

"Today belongs to the survivors, and the whānau and friends of those who were harmed or lost their lives. Twenty-two people were killed and 25 harmed and, as the Victim Impact Statements have outlined, the impact is far wider," said Haszard.

"One impact has been to raise our national understanding about the obligations on businesses to do everything they can to keep people safe.  Whakaari is a catastrophic example of what can go wrong when they don't.

"The work activity on the day of the eruption put people's lives at risk. People put their faith in the businesses involved in these trips. But they were not properly informed about the risks, and they were not kept safe.

"Whakaari was one of the worst natural disasters in Aotearoa, and the scale of WorkSafe's response is unprecedented. WorkSafe had a duty to investigate this tragedy, and we have a duty to hold businesses to account.

"All businesses who had control over the island or took visitors to the island were convicted of health and safety failings, and they have now been sentenced," said Haszard.