Austria hears first suit over Covid 'super-spreader' outbreak at ski resort

Ischgl is accused of being the epicentre of outbreaks across Europe

The first civil lawsuit started in Vienna on Friday over a Covid-19 outbreak at the popular Alpine ski resort of Ischgl in March 2020, where thousands of people from 45 countries claim to have become infected.

The case is the first of 15 lawsuits filed by claimants from Austria and Germany, who are accusing the authorities of not responding quickly enough to Covid-19 outbreaks in Ischgl and other resorts in the province of Tyrol.

It is being brought on behalf of the family of 72-year-old Hannes Schopf, who died after contracting the virus in Ischgl.

Lawyer Alexander Klauser, acting for the Schopf family and the VSV consumer organisation helping them and others bring their cases to court, said the official shortcomings that allowed Ischgl and the surrounding area to become a virus hotspot were manifold.

He pointed to a report last October by an independent commission of experts which found that local officials had “reacted too late” and made “serious miscalculations” when alerted by Iceland on March 5 that several of its nationals had tested positive on returning home.

Local officials “had at least 48 hours to react” after the warning, Mr Klauser said.

They also missed an opportunity to prevent more tourists coming to the valley that weekend, and the regional government cast doubt on whether the Icelandic tourists had been infected in Ischgl, he said.

Mr Klauser also accused the authorities of doing “too little, too late” when a restaurant worker tested positive for the virus, saying contact tracing was insufficient and the implementation of restrictions on tourist activity over the subsequent few days was only “halting".

When the valley was finally placed in quarantine, an orderly evacuation of the area was “thwarted” by the chaotic manner in which it was announced and organised, he said.

According to Mr Schopf's widow, the retired journalist and keen skier caught the virus during the panicked evacuation by bus, crammed with other tourists who were sneezing and coughing for three hours.

The Schopf family is now suing the Republic of Austria for 100,000 euros ($120,000) over his death.

In an interview earlier this year, his widow Sieglinde Schopf said her “entire world shattered into pieces".

“I can't forgive myself, because in the end, I sent him to his death,” she said, as she had encouraged him to take the break.

In addition to the 15 lawsuits, another 30 people have presented compensation claims to the Austrian government.

“What all those affected want above all is for the Republic of Austria to accept responsibility - we've had no sign of this up until now,” Mr Klauser said.

The suffering of those left behind was “prolonged” by the official refusal to shoulder any blame, he said.

Of the 6,000 people who claim to have contracted the virus in Ischgl and the surrounding area, 5 per cent suffer from symptoms of long Covid, including headaches, sleep disturbance and shortness of breath, the VSV association said. In total, 32 people have died.

The Federal Attorney's office, which represents the state, has denied it acted too slowly or that any more could have been done at the time.

Five people, including four local officials, were placed under investigation by the public prosecutor's office in Innsbruck in relation to the outbreak.

The file has been sent to the justice ministry.

Updated: September 17th 2021, 6:10 PM