New Zealand judge dismisses charges against White Island volcano owners

On Tuesday, after two months of their trial, a New Zealand judge dismissed the specific accusations against the three siblings who were the owners of Whakaari/White Island during its catastrophic volcanic eruption.

The explosion on the volcano island in December 2019 resulted in the death of 22 Australians and left 25 others seriously injured. These individuals were part of tour groups who were visiting the island when the sudden eruption occurred.

Individually, Andrew, James, and Peter Buttle – who inherited and currently own White Island through a family trust – were charged under New Zealand health and safety law for their failure to demonstrate proper care and caution as company directors in understanding and controlling the risks associated with the island.

All have pleaded not guilty. In July, a judge-alone trial commenced at the Auckland District Court for the individuals, their company Whakaari Management Limited, and other tourism businesses associated with the Whakaari reservation, transportation, and organization procedure.

Last week, Buttles’ lawyers argued that the evidence presented over the course of seven weeks was insufficient to prove the charges against the defendants.

Judge Thomas concurred, and dismissed the charges the siblings encountered in a ruling on Tuesday.

During the trial, Whakaari Management Limited (WML), the company for which the three individuals served as exclusive directors, continues to be a defendant. The men chose not to seek the dismissal of charges against the organization, which had established agreements with tour companies to bring tourists to the island.

Judge Thomas informed the court that determining whether the individuals had neglected their obligations as directors would necessitate evaluating the actions of each person according to the specific tasks they were assigned and how effectively they carried them out.

In this case, he stated that there was no evidence of what happened behind the boardroom door at WML, adding that there were disagreements or discussions between them, as well as negotiations, in regards to Buttles’ responsibilities and circumstances.

Judge Thomas stated, “If they were in the position of that director, I am unable to evaluate the actions that a reasonable director would have taken without that evidence.”

Investigators did not ask whether the directors were unified in their decision, said Thomas Judge. However, the New Zealand Labour Inspectorate, WorkSafe, could gather individual information about the men’s actions. Thomas Judge added that the investigators did not ask. The directors were unified in their decision-making, he added.

The lawyers for the three men, who have sought to have the charges against them dismissed for the third time, argued that the brothers were referred to by WorkSafe as a single-director firm, and that their company was treated collectively instead of individually, according to investigators.

An announcement is anticipated on Friday. Two travel companies that are also defendants in the lawsuit have submitted requests to have the accusations against them dropped.

If proven culpable, the corporations could be subject to fines of up to NZ$1.5m. It remains unclear if WML intends to offer a defense as their legal representatives have yet to comment.

According to Phil Parkes, the chief executive of WorkSafe, the criminal charges were filed in 2020 as a result of the agency’s most extensive and intricate investigation to date.

Prior to their visit to Whakaari, individuals who survived the volcanic eruption expressed that they were unaware of the potential dangers and had not been alerted by their tour guides. The court listened to impactful and vivid testimonies from survivors of the eruption. Prosecutors argued that the proprietors of the island prioritized financial gains over the well-being of visitors. The trial commenced with these assertions made by the prosecutors.

Following the ongoing trial, they will receive their sentencing. Numerous additional companies implicated in aiding the journey have already confessed to the accusations levied against them.