The question of liability is now being discussed by major news organizations in regards to the volcanic eruption that took place on White Island off the coast of New Zealand.
The Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Ovation of the Seas, had passengers on the island at the time of the eruption. As of Wed. Dec. 11, there have been 6 confirmed deaths with 8 people missing and presumed dead. According to the Washington Post, “more than 30 people were hospitalized after being rescued, some with serious burn injuries.”
At lease one American couple – newlyweds traveling on Ovation of the Seas – were on the island when the eruption occurred. NBC News reported that, “the man and a woman from Virginia who were honeymooning in New Zealand are among those severely injured in a volcano eruption there Monday.”
It’s unclear if other Royal Caribbean passengers who were visiting White Island/Whakaari were injured, rescued or made it back safely to Ovation of the Seas docked in the nearby Tauranga port.
Is Royal Caribbean Liable for Passenger Burns, Injuries or Death?
According to USA Today article, Royal Caribbean Passengers Hurt in New Zealand Volcano Eruption: Is The Cruise Line Liable? – “the incident raises the question of whether the cruise company is liable for injuries to passengers who were on White Island at the time.”
Royal Caribbean, as it does in other ports of call around the world, partners with local vendors who provide the actual excursions, tours, trips and events that passengers are able book. The excursions are often heavily promoted and result in millions of dollars of revenue and profit for Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines each year. The cruise lines have a huge financial incentive to market excursions to their passengers.
In his article, Cruise Ship: How They Make Money, popular wealth advisor Jeremy Kisner says that “cruise ship operators make approximately 72% of their revenue from tickets and the other 28% on-board—shore excursions, casinos, alcohol, gift shops, spas, photos, as well as travel insurance (sold through the cruise line) and other services.”
The level of “partnership” or “business relationship” with these third-party businesses can depend on a variety of factors. Naturally, some vendors provide safe, reliable services while others provide varying levels of service.
There have been numerous passenger injury claims leveled against the cruise lines and their vendors over the years – accidents, injury and death related to bus tours, diving excursions, zip line activities, parasailing and others. Many of those cases have resulted in successful outcomes for the injured parties in which they were compensated for their injuries.
As the article goes on to say about Royal Caribbean’s liability, “this can become problematic if a line doesn’t partner with a responsible or reputable expert vendor in the local environment. At this time, it is unclear whether Royal Caribbean had partnered with a local company, whether passengers took independent excursions or whether an official cruise-sponsored trip occurred.”
The New Zealand Herald reports, “tour operators make the final decision about whether to take visitors to the privately owned island, where access is controlled through permits.”
Some important questions remain to be answered:
What it a reputable tour company that these passengers were using to visit the island?
Were these independent excursions?
Were they excursions promoted by and booked through Royal Caribbean?
Why were any tourists, Royal Caribbean passengers or otherwise, allowed to visit White Island during this time?
Were passengers, the cruise line or tour operators aware of elevated alert levels leading up to the eruption?
Determining liability in a potential injury claim against Royal Caribbean can be quite complicated.
In the video below, cruise injury attorneys Joel Barnett and Andrew Waks discuss the difficulties of excursion injury lawsuits and the duty of care the cruise lines should maintain.
Again from the USA Today article: “GeoNet, which tracks New Zealand’s seismic and volcanic activity, raised its alert level on the island in November after increasing sulfur dioxide gas. Volcanic tremor also increased, and the agency wrote at the time that the island “may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal.”
On December 2nd, GeoNet published an update on their Facebook page (shown below) that stated, “we’ve issued a new Volcanic Alert Bulletin for Whakaari/White Island, continuing our weekly updates. This week we’ve observed regular bursts of steam and gas-driven fountaining – seen in this volcano cam pic from 1 December. Current activity at the island is still within the bounds of moderate volcanic unrest.”
The GeoNet service, which provides geological hazard information for New Zealand, is a collaboration between the Earthquake Commission and GNS Science which provide education and readiness to the citizens of New Zealand.
The Prime Minster of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has been quoted as saying White Island “is a very unpredictable volcano.” And per the Washington Post, “experts had reported increased volcanic activity on the island weeks before Monday’s incident.”
Marketing White Island Volcano Experience Cruise and Guided Exploration
While the excursion had been promoted on the Royal Caribbean website along with other New Zealand tour options, the excursion is no longer listed – though a website cached view of that page can be found.
That excursion is/was called: White Island Volcano Experience Cruise and Guided Exploration – TR93. On that page – linked to here – the excursion’s description reads:
Journey to sunny Whakatane for a scenic boat ride along the picturesque Bay of Plenty to White Island for an unforgettable guided tour of New Zealand’s most active volcano. In fact, White Island is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Zodiac inflatable crafts take you from your boat directly into the crater complex. Since the majority of the volcano sits beneath the sea, you head straight to the action without much, if any, climbing at all. Gas masks/breathing apparatus helps you get up close to roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and the amazing lake of steaming acid. And the vivid hues of yellow and orange resulting from all sulfur on the island make for remarkable photos, so have your camera ready.
• Guests in wheelchairs and others with limited mobility should not select this tour.
• Guests must consider their physical fitness level and medical history when determining whether this tour is appropriate.
• Guests with pre-existing neck, back, knee and/or shoulder injuries, cardiac conditions, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, other heart or respiratory conditions or any other medical condition must take particular caution when selecting a tour — particularly tours categorized as “strenuous.”
• Guests who have concerns must consult with their personal physician before engaging in any activity that may be strenuous for them.
• White Island: Tour one of the world’s most active volcanos; your tour takes you directly to the crater complex, since most of the volcano sits beneath the sea.
• 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.
• Lunch included: Enjoy a packed lunch onboard the boat as you cruise along the picturesque Bay of Plenty.
• THIS TOUR IS OPERATED BY A TOUR OPERATOR THAT HAS BEEN THIRD-PARTY VERIFIED TO AN INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED SUSTAINABILITY STANDARD.
As reported by CruiseLawNews.com on their website, “Royal Caribbean deleted the description of the tour on its website, although a cache view of the tour is still available (the information listed above).
Image credit: White Island, New Zealand (Tim Meko /Washington Post)
From the New Zealand Herald: White Island erupts: Why were tourists allowed on unsettled island?
Questions for a cruise ship injury law firm?
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