The offshore volcano erupted in December 2019, killing 22 people who were on the island — including 14 Australian tourists.
A local coronial inquest into the disaster is ongoing, while several family members of those killed are pursuing separate legal actions.
However, the matter has first reached the court on workplace safety grounds. The two-day hearing beginning on June 3 will take place in Whakatane, the Bay of Plenty holiday spot closest to the volcano, where it has sparked a massive local interest.
Given the size of the district court in the city of 40,000, a second venue will be used to live stream proceedings.
New Zealand’s watchdog Worksafe alleges 13 parties — 10 organizations and three people — were negligent in their duty of care to visitors to the island.
Tourism outlets Inflite Charters, ID Tours, Tauranga Tourism Services, White Island Tours, Kahu New Zealand, Volcanic Air Safaris, and Aerius face heavy fines if found to have breached their obligations.
Government agencies National Emergency Management Agency and GNS Science also face charges. The National Emergency Management Agency is the public service department of New Zealand responsible for providing leadership and support around national, local, and regional emergencies.
It is an autonomous departmental agency hosted by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. GNS Science is a New Zealand Crown Research Institute. It focuses on geology, geophysics, and nuclear science. GNS Science was known as the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences from 1992 to 2005.
The three people to have been charged are the legal owners of the island; James, Peter, and Andrew Buttle, as well as their own company Whakaari Management.
Each organization faces a maximum fine of $NZ1.5 million ($1.08 million) and individuals could be charged $NZ300,000 ($216,600).
Little details around Worksafe’s prosecution are known, with the organization refusing media inquiries.
The case should be made clear in court this week when those 13 parties could also be asked to give pleas.
The court is also expected to consider whether future hearings or a trial should be held elsewhere, to limit further trauma to the community.
A total of 47 people — including local tour guides and visitors from nearby cruise ships — were on the volcano when it erupted.
In addition to the 22 killed, most others were severely burned, many left with life-altering injuries.
(Edited by Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar and Ritaban Misra)