Survivors and families of tourists killed in the Whakaari/White Island disaster pursuing a string of lawsuits claim they were sent unwittingly into an active volcano.
Legal documents filed in American courts, and obtained by the Weekend Herald, graphically allege how the tragedy unfolded.
Litigation lawyers claim Ovation of the Seas cruise ship operator Royal Caribbean failed to properly impress upon its passengers booking the fateful day-trip just how dangerous the outing could be.
Various lawsuits have been filed in the United States since the December 9, 2019 eruption, which claimed 22 lives.
Cruise giant Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, registered in the West African republic of Liberia, has unsuccessfully to date argued against them - even trying to get them shifted to courts in New South Wales, Australia.
Miami attorney Michael A Winkleman is representing several plaintiffs in actions against both Royal Caribbean and Whakatāne tour company White Island Tours Ltd, including badly burned newlyweds Matthew Urey and Lauren Barham, and the estate of Indian-American entrepreneur Pratap "Paul" Singh and his wife Mayuari Singh.
An amended complaint filed last week at the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court – near where Royal Caribbean runs its flagship terminal and corporate offices at palm-lined Miami Beach – alleges that tour groups were taken to the edge of the crater despite indications of heightened volcanic unrest in the weeks leading up to the eruption.
Pratap and Mayuari Singh, who were on their second visit to New Zealand, each paid US$258.99 (NZ$382) for a seven-hour "White Island volcano experience cruise and guided exploration" and got their tickets on board the cruise ship.
But Winkleman alleges they had no clear sense of the dangers they were walking into.
Royal Caribbean, the Singh complaint alleges, only referred to White Island as "one of the most active volcanoes in the world" - with an "active" volcano, the lawyers say, only being defined as having had at least one eruption in the last 10,000 years.
"Unbeknownst to plaintiffs, however, this particular volcano had erupted multiple times in the past 10 years, with the most recent being merely three years before the subject cruise, in 2016," the complaint says.
"In fact, the volcano had erupted in 2016, 2013, 2012, 2000, and several times in the 1980s!"
Three weeks before the eruption, New Zealand's seismic monitoring agency GNS Science raised White Island's volcano alert rating to level 2 after heightened activity, indicating "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest".
And days later, there was a strong magnitude-5.9 earthquake with an epicentre about 10km northeast of the island.
Yet, the lawsuit alleges Royal Caribbean "failed to notify passengers" of the numerous eruptions since 2000, or of the heightened volcanic activity and resulting alert level rise, nor that seismic activity in the area meant an increased risk of eruption.
It also claims that while Royal Caribbean classified the day-trip as "strenuous", it merely warned passengers to consider their "physical fitness level and medical history".
"Finally, RCCL [Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd] failed to mention or warn of any risk of death or severe injuries whatsoever," says the amended complaint which claims that tour guides also failed to raise any of the dangers at the start of the trip.
"The passengers were taken to what appeared to be the centre of the volcano," it alleges.
Shortly afterwards, the volcano erupted.
The Singhs, parents of three young children, suffered severe burns; 49-year-old Pratap received burns to 55 per cent of his body. They both later died in Auckland's Middlemore Hospital.
Honeymooners Urey and Barham also sustained severe burns after being unable to find refuge from the hot ash. Urey suffered burns to 54 per cent of his body, including 30-39 per cent third-degree burns. Barham suffered burns to 23 per cent of her body, 10-19 per cent of which were third-degree.
Confronting photographs of the couple's horrific injuries are included in their documents claiming negligent misrepresentation, which have been obtained by the Weekend Herald. Both were placed into medically-induced comas and underwent skin grafts and plastic surgeries. It was nearly two months before they were able to fly back to the US.
Although they got married in South Carolina two months before their life-changing injuries, Barham has been "unable to legally change her last name" due to the "catastrophic injuries", their lawsuit says.
"My body was literally sizzling," Barham earlier told CBS This Morning.
"We started off having the time of our lives, and then it just turned out to be just hell."
Asked by CBS if she was grateful to be alive, she replied: "If you want me to be honest, at times I kind of wished — it would be easier if I wasn't. I am now. But at the time, when I was in New Zealand ... I couldn't do anything. I couldn't go to the bathroom by myself, I couldn't brush my teeth, I couldn't use the phone … and I just was wondering if I would ever be normal again."
There were 47 people on the volcano when it erupted in December 2019, mostly international tourists from the giant 347m Ovation of the Seas cruise liner.
Royal Caribbean denies many of the allegations, but challenges to the various lawsuits filed by victims have so far been unsuccessful.
Their attempts to have the Singh family's claims dismissed last month because of the "open and obvious" dangers associated with visiting the island were rejected by a US federal judge.
Royal Caribbean's lawyers have also downplayed White Island's alert level 2 volcano activity rating at the time of the eruption.
They highlight the last GNS "volcanic alert bulletin" on December 3, 2019 - just six days before the disaster - which said "while the [volcanic] activity is contained to the far side of the lake, the current level of activity does not pose a direct hazard to visitors".
Last July, a Federal Court in Australia gave the green light for two survivors to launch legal action against Royal Caribbean in the American jurisdiction.
Australian Stephanie Browitt, whose father Paul and younger sister Krystal died, suffered horrendous burns when the volcano erupted as they were near the crater.
She has publicly chronicled her painstaking recovery through countless surgeries and now, alongside her mother Marie, has been told she can pursue a lawsuit through the US courts.
"Covered with burns and barely able to move, Stephanie [Browitt] staggered toward the jetty, with other passengers screaming and grabbing at her legs as she went," says documents filed at Miami-Dade County Circuit Court.
"She made it to the jetty where she waited on the hot ground for rescue.
"Every 15 to 20 minutes she could hear her father calling her name and she realised he was trying to help her stay awake."
In November 2020, just before the first anniversary of the disaster, WorkSafe announced it was laying charges against 13 organisations and individuals.
Those charged include the island's owner Whakaari Management Ltd and its directors Andrew, James and Peter Buttle; GNS Science; the National Emergency Management Agency; White Island Tours Ltd; Volcanic Air Safaris Ltd; Aerius Limited; Kahu NZ Ltd; Inflite Charters Ltd; I D Tours New Zealand Ltd; and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited.
The charges do not relate to events on the day of the eruption or the rescue efforts.
All defendants have pleaded not guilty to a total of 20 charges and will stand trial at an as-yet unconfirmed New Zealand district court in 2023.