By Lucy Craymer
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The management company of White Island, where a volcano eruption killed 22 people, mostly tourists, in 2019, was found guilty of one charge of breaching health and safety law in a New Zealand court on Tuesday.
Following the explosion on White Island, also known as Whakaari, the workplace regulator charged 13 parties in November 2020. Six of them, including the helicopter and boat tour operators, pleaded guilty. Charges against the other parties, except the management company, were dismissed.
District Court Judge Evangelos Thomas found Whakaari Management Ltd. (WML), which manages the island on behalf of the owners but did not undertake the tours, was guilty of one health and safety charge. A second charge was dismissed.
Thomas said WML controlled and managed the volcano as a workplace and as a result it needed to engage necessary expertise such as volcanology and health and safety expertise to assess risk arising from tours.
"It was a reasonably practicable step it should have taken to ensure it met its duty," said Thomas, adding it was a "major failure" that it did not do so.
Whakaari Management Ltd and the other entities, excluding Inflight Charters which had already been sentenced, are expected to be sentenced next year.
The parties face a maximum fine of NZ$1.5 million ($873,600).
Lawyers for Whakaari Management Ltd did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
White Island is an active volcano, which lies around 50 km (31 miles) offshore from the town of Whakatane on the east coast of North Island. It used to regularly host visitors even though eruptions were not uncommon.
Most of the victims were tourists from countries including Australia, the U.S. and Malaysia. There were 47 people on the island when the volcano erupted, many of whom were badly burnt by searing gas and ash.
Tourists are no longer able to visit the island.
($1 = 1.7170 New Zealand dollars)
(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Michael Perry)