Civil lawsuits filed over COVID-19 outbreak at Austrian ski resort Ischgl

VIENNA, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A consumer rights group said on Wednesday it had filed civil lawsuits against the Austrian government over a coronavirus outbreak at the ski resort of Ischgl last winter, but it held off on a class-action suit for the time being.

The outbreak at Ischgl, which calls itself the “Ibiza of the Alps”, was Austria’s biggest and helped spread the virus across Europe. Hundreds of Austrians were infected and thousands of foreign tourists say they were too as the virus found a breeding ground in crowded apres-ski bars in February and early March.

Ischgl’s first case was detected on March 7, days after Iceland said that tourists had been infected there and 11 days after Austria’s first infections were confirmed. Austria’s public health agency has since said it believes the virus arrived in Ischgl far earlier, on Feb. 5.

The authorities in the province of Tyrol say they responded appropriately given what was known at the time. The private Consumer Protection Association (VSV) argues they reacted too slowly and possibly gave in to pressure from the tourism sector not to act.

“Yesterday I filed - on behalf of the VSV and the affected tourists or those they left behind - the first four lawsuits against the Republic of Austria at the Provincial Civil Court in Vienna,” lawyer Alexander Klauser said in a VSV statement.

The lawsuits were on behalf of individuals, the statement said. At least three related to the Ischgl area.

The VSV, a group led by consumer rights activist and former environmentalist lawmaker Peter Kolba, has for months been publishing tallies of foreign tourists who say they were infected at Ischgl and other resorts in Tyrol and have signed up for a possible class-action lawsuit.

The latest tally is 6,170 people in 47 countries, including Britain, the United States and the Netherlands, though most are in Germany. Roughly three-quarters were in Ischgl.

VSV said it hoped to file a class-action suit next year.

“As a next step the VSV will try to organise one or multiple large class-action lawsuits next year,” it said, also publishing an open letter to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz urging him to reach a settlement because such lawsuits could take “years if not decades”.

Kurz’s conservatives also lead the provincial government in Tyrol. Kurz himself announced an immediate quarantine in Ischgl and the surrounding Paznaun Valley on March 13, though tourists were allowed to leave, further fuelling the spread of the virus in what the VSV called a “chaotic” process. (Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)