One attorney said that Royal Caribbean’s dramatic description of volcanic activity on White Island will open the cruise line to liability.
Royal Caribbean is facing the mounting threat of litigation following a deadly volcanic eruption in New Zealand.
According to RNZ, there were about 47 people on White Island last Monday. Most visitors hailed from abroad: there were 24 Australians, nine Americans, four Germans, two Brits, two Chinese and a Malaysian.
White Island—sometimes referred to by its indigenous name, Whakaari—has a long-standing reputation for volcanic activity. Recent tremors suggested an impending eruption, but cruise lines and adventure tourism companies continued sending visitors to and near the island.
Whakaari’s eruption killed at least 16, with a further 30 hospitalized, some in serious condition. While New Zealand’s accident compensation laws largely prevents litigants from seeking personal damages, there’s a significant chance suits will be filed abroad—particularly here in the United States.
Bill Hodge, an “honorary academic” with the University of Auckland’s law faculty, told RNZ that American passengers who bought tickets from a U.S.-based travel agency could sue Royal Caribbean, since that company does business in the United States.
“I would bet you at this very moment there are what we call contingency-fee lawyers, which means no-win, no-fee, looking for the families […] and they will sign them up for an action which is speculative,” Hodge said.
Hodge told RNZ that attorneys are likely to accuse Royal Caribbean—which offered guided tours to Whakaari’s crater–of failing to properly notify clients of the risks inherent to traveling White Island.
“Were they told this is the highest level of warning that the geological experts in New Zealand can give without it actually erupting?” Hodge asked. “Were they told that?”
“Yes, they did put it in their signature or something,” Hodge added, “but if you’re not told the full story, then you’re not giving informed consent.”
Late last week, Reuters proposed that Royal Caribbean may try dodging liability in the United States by arguing that the eruption is an “act of god.”
Robert Kritzman, an attorney with Miami-based Baker Donelson, told Reuters that Royal Caribbean will probably say that a volcanic eruption—an extraordinary, unpredictable event—couldn’t possibly be foreseen.
“If a volcano were to erupt, clearly there isn’t negligence on anyone’s part, that’s nature,” Kritzman said.
Reuters notes that the feasibility of that defense rests upon what Royal Caribbean knew or should have known about White Island—and whether they effectively conveyed that information to passengers.
“There are tremors, there are earthquakes and people monitor that,” said attorney Carlos Llinas Negret, who’s representing several passengers. “It all depends on what the cruise knew, and when they knew it.”
However, it appears that Royal Caribbean may have posited the danger as part of White Island’s appeal. A cached version of the cruise line’s website described Whakaari as “one of the most active volcanoes in the world.”
“Get close to the drama: Gas masks help you get near roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and the amazing lake of steaming acid,” the site promised.
Reuters proposes that that dramatic description will likely feature in any lawsuit seeking to hold Royal Caribbean accountable for loss of life and grievous injury.
Bob Parks, another Miami-based attorney working with passengers, said the same.
“If they hand out gas masks,” Parks said, “that says automatically you know you have a risk.”