By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (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, known as 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.

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, mishandled the response and possibly gave in to pressure from the tourism sector not to act initially.

“These are only the first lawsuits. Others will follow,” VSV chief Peter Kolba, a consumer rights activist and former environmentalist lawmaker, told a news conference.

The four test cases were brought on behalf of individuals, all relating to the Ischgl area, the VSV said. Damages sought are up to 100,000 euros ($117,000) as U.S.-style punitive damages are not available.

The VSV has for months been publishing tallies of foreign tourists who have told it they were infected at Ischgl and other resorts in Tyrol.

The latest tally is 6,170 people in more than 40 countries, including Britain, the United States and the Netherlands, though most are in Germany and the overwhelming majority visited Ischgl. The VSV is representing about 1,000 of them and is in touch with the remainder about a possible class-action lawsuit.

The VSV said it would “try” to file one or more class-action suits next year.

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“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)

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