Royal Caribbean takes legal action against survivors of New Zealand's White Island volcano disaster | White Island volcano

The cruise line Royal Caribbean has launched legal action in Australia in a bid to stop victims of New Zealand’s White Island eruption fr...


The cruise line Royal Caribbean has launched legal action in Australia in a bid to stop victims of New Zealand’s White Island eruption from suing it in Miami, where it has its headquarters.

In litigation in Miami, American couple Ivy and Paul Reed, who were severely burned when the White Island volcano erupted a year ago, and Australians Marie and Stephanie Browitt, who lost family in the disaster, have accused Royal Caribbean of failing in its duty to keep passengers safe by allowing a day trip to White Island to go ahead despite warnings the volcano might erupt.

But last week the cruise company applied to the federal court in Australia for a ruling prohibiting the families from going any further with their US lawsuits.

Royal Caribbean, which is the biggest cruise company in the world, claims a clause in the ticket contract governing the voyage means courts in the Australian state of New South Wales are the only venue that can hear disputes over the disaster.

The eruption, on 9 December 2019, killed 22 people who had been cruising on Royal Caribbean’s ship Ovation of the Seas, including Marie Browitt’s husband, Paul, and daughter, Krystal. A further 25 people were injured.

The Reeds and the Browitts have filed separate lawsuits in the US against Royal Caribbean, seeking damages for the disaster.

In their case filed in the US federal court system, Ivy and Paul Reed, who live in Maryland, claim that the eruption caused “severe, life-threatening burns over large portions of their bodies, permanent and disfiguring scarring, reduced use of their limbs and extremities”, as well as inflicting ongoing mental trauma and making it difficult for them to work.

The Browitts claim in their lawsuit, which they filed in the Florida state court system, that “Stephanie Browitt was severely injured, suffering injuries that will last throughout her life, and both Marie and Stephanie Browitt suffered severe emotional distress, mental anguish, physical pain, loss of enjoyment of life, post-traumatic stress and other mental and/or nervous disorders.”

The lawsuit also includes claims on behalf of the estates of Paul and Krystal Browitt, made under Florida’s wrongful death laws.

Krystal Browitt, who died in the White Island eruption.
Krystal Browitt, who died in the White Island eruption. Photograph: Facebook

White Island’s volcanic activity level increased in the weeks before the excursion to level 2, the highest before an eruption, and the Browitts allege that during the tour a guide told Krystal it was “nearing level 3” – an eruption.

They allege Royal Caribbean either knew or ought to have known that the volcano was dangerous but went ahead and sold tickets to the day trip anyway in order to maximise its profit.

“The sale of any tickets to the island was outrageous conduct, and nothing short of selling a ticket to play Russian roulette,” the Browitts allege.

“This conduct was indecently cavalier, outside the bounds of decency and so reckless that it should not be tolerated in civilised society.”

In their lawsuit, the Reeds also allege Royal Caribbean knew or ought to have known of the danger of eruption, but pushed ahead with the trip anyway.

They describe the eruption in detail in court filings, saying they were “engulfed by a boiling cloud of acid gas, rock and ash” and that “Ms Reed recalls that her group resembled people walking away from the fallen Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11, 2001, except that the persons on White Island that day were horribly burned, in addition to being covered by white ash.”

Royal Caribbean has not filed defences to either of the US cases, both of which were lodged earlier this month.

However, in its Australian federal court lawsuits against the survivors, Royal Carribbean claims that both the Reeds and the Browitts are bound by ticket terms and conditions that restrict any legal action to the NSW courts.

It has asked the court to make orders preventing the families from moving ahead with their US cases.

The Australian lawyer for the Browitts, Peter Gordon of Gordon Legal, told Guardian Australia the family “didn’t get a contract that said anything about where suits should be litigated”.

He said Royal Caribbean was defending other cases brought by victims in Miami, including one by newlyweds Lauren Barham and Matthew Urey.

“We intend to protect and to defend Marie and Stephanie’s, and Paul and Krystal’s, right to pursue this case where the wrongdoing took place,” Gordon said.

“And that wrongdoing that took place was at the headquarters of Royal Caribbean, where they turned a blind eye to all the evidence that White Island was ready to erupt.”

Lawyers for the Reed family declined to comment.

Royal Caribbean did not answer Guardian Australia’s questions about the lawsuits.

“Our thoughts are with all those affected by this tragedy, however we do not comment on pending inquiries,” a spokeswoman said.

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Newsrust: Royal Caribbean takes legal action against survivors of New Zealand's White Island volcano disaster | White Island volcano
Royal Caribbean takes legal action against survivors of New Zealand's White Island volcano disaster | White Island volcano
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