The Ovation of the Seas left Sydney last night, ironically on a 10-night cruise through the Pacific and New Zealand, as it became clearer Royal Caribbean may face legal action over the tragedy on White Island.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said tour operators and cruise ship companies are legally responsible for the safety of passengers and staff who visited White Island when the volcano erupted last Monday.

She also said some executives could face jail sentences and multi-million-dollar fines under New Zealand’s workplace laws.

Her comments came after an online debate among lawyers as to whether or not those affected by the terrible accident could get compensation.

Some legal entities maintained an “act of God” would exclude legal action and may even affect insurance. Others suggested, because New Zealand has laws protecting its adventure travel industry, a crucial sector of the tourism economy, action might not be possible.

But some believe work place laws are likely to be different. And one American law firm maintains that, because Royal Caribbean insists any legal action against the company is taken in Miami, it will be American laws that count in the end.

The New Zealand government is also offering a $5m financial compensation package for local businesses affected by the tragedy.

At least 14 Australians and two New Zealanders have died, with two others missing presumed dead.

Ovation of the Seas leaves Sydney
Ovation of the Seas leaves Sydney Monday

A WorkSafe investigation will look into the harm and loss of life, as well as examining workplace health and safety issues.

“The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 covers work and workplaces in New Zealand and WorkSafe is the primary regulator,” she said.

“Its role also affects public safety where this is affected by work.

“The primary duty of care is held by the person conducting a business or undertaking and they, usually an organisation, are required to manage the health and safety risks to people, including workers and the public arising from their activities.

“Tour operators, cruise ship companies, emergency responders and landowners fall under this. WorkSafe can prosecute for breaches of the act and penalties and criminal sanctions range from $50,000 to $3m and up to five years in prison.”

The investigation could take as long as a year, but an interim report from officials on the wider issues is expected in the New Year.

Ovation of the Seas docked in Sydney on Monday with passengers leaving the ship in somber mood.

The New Zealand inquiry will decide whether charges should be brought against any named individuals who are found to have violated New Zealand’s workplace health and safety laws.

An investigation by New Zealand’s chief coroner is also under way.

Tourism and legal analysts told the Guardian website last week that New Zealand’s “no fault” accident compensation system had given rise to more risk-taking in the adventure tourism sector than was considered acceptable in other countries.
But Ms Ardern defended the laweys, saying: “I simply do not agree that ACC in any way has led to there being less focus on health and safety issues.”