‘No criminal offense considered proven’ in deadly 2015 avalanche, prosecutors rule; parents of girl killed says findings boosts civil case

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No criminal charges are warranted for the actions by Svalbard’s governor, Longyearbyen city officials and others related to a 2015 avalanche that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people, the Norwegian Bureau for the Investigation of Police Affairs announced Wednesday.

But an attorney for the parents of one of the people killed said the bureau’s findings nonetheless bolster a civil case accusing officials of negligence by failing to recognize the threat to the homes and evacuate the area.

The accusation and investigation were prompted in part because of reports the city and Store Norske received dating back to the early 1990s stating avalanches capable of reaching buildings were likely to occur every 30 to 40 years. The avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, occurred after Longyearbyen’s worst snowstorm in decades, but despite advance storm warnings the governor did not order an evacuation of the homes before they were destroyed.

But the bureau’s 30-page report states none of the parties acted negligently, including the governor who is responsible for deciding if evacuations should be ordered.

“Before there could be considered an evacuation, it should be expected that there were known concrete indications of danger,” the decision states. “The investigation shows that both long-term residents in Svalbard and specialized agencies were surprised at the scale and consequences of the avalanche.”

Also, while the city knew about the potential risk and bears certain legal responsibilities to ensure residents’ safety, “the failure to inform residents of Lia’s houses about the earlier risk assessments is not such that it alone can provide grounds for punishment,” the bureau’s decision states.

Furthermore, there are no grounds for legal liability against Store Norske as a former landowner, prosecutors stated.

But Christian Lundin, an attorney for Pia Sivertsen and Kim Rune Røkenes, told Svalbardposten the report strengthens the couple’s claim that their daughter, Nikoline Røkenes, 2, death in the avalanche could have been prevented if officials had responded differently to the threat assessment and massive storm.

The difference, he told the newspaper, is criminal charges require a nearly 100-percent probability of wrongdoing while a civil case requires more than 50 percent probability.

“The other difference is that in order to be punished you must have acted intentionally,” he said. “In order to be entitled to compensation, it means that you act negligently. In this case, there should have been notification of the danger of eradication, there should have been an evacuation and so on.”

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