France's highest appeal court, the Court of Cassation, on Tuesday upheld energy giant Total’s conviction for negligence arising from the 1999 shipwreck of the oil-tanker Erika.
The oil spill which followed the sinking of the oil tanker Erika in international waters off the west coast of France caused an unprecedented environmental disaster along large sections of France’s Atlantic seaboard, reports Yahoo News.
French oil company Total had previously been found guilty of failing to address maintenance problems when it chartered an aging 25-year-old tanker, the Erika, which turned out to be a rust-bucket. On December 12, 1999, during a storm in the Bay of Biscay, the Erika foundered and broke its back before sinking 75 kilometres (45 miles) off Brittany in north west France.
Extent of pollution from the Erika oil disaster off the west coast of France in 1999
As a result about 30,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil leeched into stormy seas before being washed up along 400 kilometres (250 miles) of coastline in southern Brittany, the estuary of France’s greatest river, the river Loire and along France’s Vendée coast, all prime tourist areas.
Tens of thousands of seabirds perished as a result of the oil spill whilst some of the best beaches in France were deserted as oil residues polluted large sections of the coast. The economic impact of the oil spill was not restricted to tourism as fishing, a mainstay of the local economy, was halted and the consumption of shellfish from the affected areas banned. In some areas, it took years for the local economy to recover.
A Jurisdictional Nightmare
A lengthy legal battle had followed the sinking of the Erika culminating in 2010, when a Paris based appeals court ordered Total to pay a fine of €375,000 (about $485,000) and awarded compensation totalling €200 million (almost $260 million) to a number of civil plaintiffs, including the French state, local business co-operatives and numerous French communes (local authorities) affected by the oil spill.
The case was complicated jurisdictionally in that the Erika was owned by a company registered in Malta whose principal shareholder, Giuseppe Savarese (one of those found guilty along with Total), was an Italian living in London. Total relied heavily on the fact that that the Italian body responsible for ship safety, the Registro Italiano Navale (RINA) had regularly reported that the tanker was in good condition.
In 2008, when the case first came before the French courts, Total, Italian certification authority RINA, which found the ship to be seaworthy, the Erika's owner Giuseppe Savarese and the ship’s handler Antonio Pollara were all convicted. The 2008 judgement, while recognizing the risks inherent with oceangoing vessels, considered Total was "guilty of imprudence," failing to take into account "the age of the ship", (nearly 25 years at the time it sank), and "the discontinuity of its technical handling and maintenance."
Total had sought to argue that it could not be responsible since the Erika was sailing under the Maltese flag and, since the ship had foundered in International Waters, the French courts had no jurisdiction. (Although the ship went down in International Waters, it sank within France’s Exclusive Economic Zone which extends 200 nautical miles from the French coast.)
The arguments fell on deaf ears at the criminal court of first instance, on appeal and now at the final appeal in France to the Court of Cassation. The Erika case was instrumental in bringing about new European Union legislation regulating the transport of goods and commodities by sea and also helped establish the principle of ‘polluter pays’.
Plaintiffs in the Erika case had feared that overturning the original judgement would set back decades of work aimed at reducing environmental risks and holding companies accountable for pollution. A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Corinne Lepage is reported by Euronews as saying, “This is a great day for all defenders of the environment. Because the Court of Cassation upheld the jurisdiction of the French court. It also confirmed the ecological damage. In addition, it found that Total committed the offence of recklessness and will have to repair the civil damage.”
Bruno Retailleau, leader of the Council for Vendée region, one of the areas worst affected by the 1999 Erika disaster said the court ruling demonstrated, "the sea is not a lawless place, it is not a place of impunity."
For environmental groups and French communes affected by the 1999 Erika oil spill, the fight may not yet be over. Total’s lawyers said they would now consider whether to launch a further appeal to the European Court of Justice.
The full judgement of the French Court of Cassation (Cour de Cassation) in the Erika case is now available (in French) online.