Whakaari owners may seek to have charges dropped

The 2019 Whakaari/White Island eruption left 22 dead and 13 organisations and individuals facing a range of charges.Photo: File.

The owners of Whakaari/White Island, the Buttle brothers, may seek to have the charges filed against them in the wake of the deadly eruption dismissed.

Lawyer David Neutze raised the possibility of a section 147 application at a hearing at the Whakatāne District Court on Tuesday.

Neutze said the decision on whether to seek dismissal of the charges would depend on disclosure.

It was also revealed at the hearing that one of the witnesses, a former White Island Tours employee, is now “not cooperating” and has refused to sign a statement.

WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald told the court a transcript of their interview had been passed onto defence counsel, but Judge Evangelos Thomas said it would fall foul of disclosure rules if not signed.

Thomas also revealed a decision on the venue for the Whakaari/White Island court case should be known by June 13 this year.

Thomas said there was “little to report in terms of venue”, but that a Ministry of Justice report on venue options was “on track” for March 31 this year.

The location would be set at a Whakatāne District Court hearing on June 13, the judge said, and he scheduled a further case review date for May 31.

The issue of where the trial should take place has created debate, and an initial report from the Ministry of Justice into venue options was criticised by WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald as “derisory”.

The trial is set to begin on July 10, 2023, and is expected to last four months, with Judge Thomas saying the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic had made a 2022 trial impossible.

The December 9, 2019 eruption took place while 47 people were on the island, leaving 22 dead and the remaining survivors with severe or critical injuries.

The event also led to WorkSafe filing numerous charges against a total of 13 individuals and organisations.

Some charges date back to April 4, 2016, and most relate to individuals and companies in their capacity as a person conducting a business or undertaking.

Fourteen of the charges have a maximum penalty of $1.5 million in fines.

Details of the charges were spelt out across 19 pages of charging documents.

WorkSafe filed a total of 20 charges against various people or groups: 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.

The Buttles are alleged to have failed with due diligence duties, including failure to acquire and keep updated knowledge of work health and safety matters and failure to gain adequate understanding of the hazards and risks associated with access to Whakaari.

Their company, Whakaari Management Ltd, is also alleged to have failed its duty to workers and tourists, including ensuring “an adequate means of evacuation from Whakaari”.

The Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences is alleged to have failed to ensure the safety of pilots travelling to and remaining on the island.

Benn Bathgate/Stuff

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