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White Island tragedy raises questions over responsibility

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A Miami-based law firm says cover provided by New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) won’t prevent US legal action against cruise company Royal Caribbean over injuries and loss of life caused by the White Island eruption.

Tourists of all nationalities who were hurt while visiting White Island are eligible to have local medical costs met by New Zealand’s ACC, while travel insurers have also confirmed cover for expenses.

The ACC legislation provides accident insurance for everyone in New Zealand, including international visitors, but prevents anyone suing for damages arising directly or indirectly from the injuries.

Most of those caught up in the tragedy were visiting the island as a day excursion after arriving in the Port of Tauranga aboard Royal Caribbean’s ship Ovation of the Seas, which had sailed from Sydney.

Walker & O’Neill Maritime Lawyers’ Jim Walker says under US General Maritime Law a cruise line is legally required to warn its passengers of dangers in foreign ports of call which it should know about.

“The cruise line will try and avail itself of all possible defences of course, but the no-fault laws of New Zealand should not be enforceable in litigation filed against Royal Caribbean here in Miami,” Mr Walker says in a comment on the law firm’s website.

“The fact of the matter is that cruise passengers [or their estates] killed or maimed during cruise excursions routinely file suit in Miami seeking compensation for damages in a wide variety of mishaps which occur in ports of call around the world.”

WorkSafe New Zealand says it will be investigating and considering all the relevant work health and safety issues surrounding the event, which will also be examined through a coronial investigation.

An ACC spokesman told insuranceNEWS.com.au that the damages bar applies to proceedings in New Zealand, but it is likely those brought elsewhere would be struck out “as the court generally applies the law applicable to the jurisdiction in which the injury occurred”.

Some 47 people were visiting White Island when it erupted. New Zealand Police have confirmed the number of deaths has risen to 16, with two people still missing.

Travel insurers Zurich, Nib and Allianz say that policyholders affected by the White Island eruption will be covered.

“This is a tragic situation and the safety of our customers is our first priority,” a Zurich spokeswoman told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“As the underwriter of Cover-More travel insurance policies we can confirm that passengers on the Ovation of the Seas Cruise who took out travel insurance with Cover-More are covered for their trip to White Island, and as such we are working with individuals and families that have been impacted.”