In a landmark decision that could set a legal precedent, the French energy giant Total and three other parties have been charged for their role in the sinking of the Erika ship, which caused a major oil spill in 1999.
In a ruling on 16 January 2008, the Criminal Court of Paris condemned the world’s fourth largest oil group Total SA to a fine of €375,000 – the maximum allowable penalty for maritime pollution – claiming “ecological prejudice” caused by the sinking of the Erika.
The case represents the first time that a French court has handed down a conviction for environmental damage and the landmark ruling could establish a legal precedent for suing companies or persons over major ecological disasters.
Cargo owners that charter a ship are usually precluded from responsibility under international maritime law. However, the Court ruled that only Total’s subsidiary, Total Transport, would be let off as the ship’s legal charterer. Total SA, on the other hand, was found guilty of recklessness in its vessel inspection and vetting procedure.
This “carelessness” had a “causal role in the sinking and as such provoked the accident,” said Judge Jean-Baptiste Parlos. Erika’s Italian owner Guiseppe Saverese and its Italian manager Antonio Pollara were also found guilty and fined €75,000 each – the maximum penalty for physical persons. According to the Court, the two men had committed a fault by cutting down on maintenance work on the Erika in order to save money, despite heavy corrosion of the ship’s structures.
The Italian maritime certification company RINA, which judges blamed for issuing a navigability certificate to the ship without undertaking the necessary checks “under the pressure of commercial constraints”, was also fined the maximum amount for a company, €175,000.
The four parties were also told to pay out nearly €200 million in damages to some one hundred plaintiffs in the case, including the French state, the regions, environmental protection groups such as Greenpeace, fishermen and hotel owners.
Eleven other accused parties, including the ship’s Indian captain Karun Mathur and Total’s former security chief Bertrand Thouillin, were let off the hook. Accusations of “putting other people’s lives in danger”, which could have led to prison sentences, were dropped against everyone.
The case is however not yet over, as Total and the other convicted parties still have ten days in which to appeal the decision. This would lead to a suspension of sanctions and a new trial in around one year.