Austria hears first lawsuit over ski resort Covid outbreak
The first civil lawsuit was heard in a court in Vienna on Friday over a notorious outbreak of coronavirus at a popular ski resort last year, where thousands of people from 45 countries claim to have become infected.
It is the first of 15 lawsuits filed by plaintiffs from Austria and Germany, who accuse the authorities of not responding quickly enough to Covid-19 outbreaks in Ischgl and other resorts in the province of Tyrol.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Sieglinde and Ulrich Schopf, the widow and son of 72-year-old Hannes Schopf, who died after contracting the virus in Ischgl.
While Sieglinde Schopf was not present in Vienna’s Palace of Justice, her son sat alongside the legal team bringing their case, with photographers and film crews allowed in before the proceedings.
Lawyer Alexander Klauser, acting for the Schopf family and the VSV consumer group helping them bring their cases, told the court that the wife “still suffers every day” from the psychological effects of Schopf’s death.
He described the son’s “rage” at those he held responsible and at the fact that his four-year-old son would have to grow up without a grandfather.
Ulrich Schopf told reporters during a break that his chief interest was to ensure justice was done. He also wanted “an acknowledgement that mistakes were made” and that they should not be allowed to happen again.
The Schopf family is suing the Republic of Austria for 100,000 euros ($120,000).
Any compensation payment would be donated to a charity as such Caritas, which his father supported when he was alive, Ulrich Schopf said.
The authorities wanted to “brush the whole thing under the carpet”, he said.
– Politics at play –
Judge Catrin Aigner closed the hearing after more than three hours, rejecting requests from the plaintiffs’ lawyers to call witnesses.
A written judgement would be given at a later, still unspecified date, the judge said.
The head of the VSV association, Peter Kolba, said he was not “disheartened” by the fact that witnesses would not be called, promising to appeal if the court ruled against the plaintiffs.
Klauser had wanted to question witnesses over the various official shortcomings that the plaintiffs say allowed Ischgl and the surrounding area to become a virus hotspot.
He pointed to the “influence of the tourism sector on Tyrol politics” and the financial damage that would have been suffered by tourism businesses if tougher action had been taken earlier.
Another issue was why the health ministry in Vienna did not seal off the valley around Ischgl earlier, or at least issue a travel warning for the area, Klauser said.
– ‘Shattered’ –
Klauser also asked why Chancellor Sebastian Kurz did not warn other relevant officials when the area was eventually put under quarantine, sparking chaos as thousands of people suddenly tried to leave.
Schopf’s widow has said her husband, a retired journalist and avid skier, caught the virus during the panicked evacuation by bus, crammed with other tourists who were sneezing and coughing.
In an interview with AFP earlier this year, she said her “entire world shattered into pieces” when her husband died.
“I can’t forgive myself, because in the end, I sent him to his death,” as she had encouraged him to take the break, she said.
Of the 6,000 people who claim to have contracted the virus in Ischgl and the surrounding area, five percent suffer from symptoms of long Covid, including headaches, sleep disturbance and shortness of breath, the VSV association said. In total, 32 people have died.
While expressing sympathy for the victims and their relatives, authorities have denied they acted too slowly or that any more could have been done at the time.
Five people, including four local officials, have been placed under investigation in Innsbruck over the outbreak but there is no indication whether criminal charges will eventually be filed.