PARIS (Reuters) - France’s highest court upheld a conviction against oil major Total SA over a 1999 oil spill, in a blow to the company which had hoped it would be absolved of blame for one of France’s worst environmental disasters.
The Cour de Cassation in Paris upheld a 2008 ruling giving Total criminal responsibility over the spill of some 20,000 metric tonnes (22,046 tons) of crude oil, when the 24-year-old tanker Erika split apart in a storm off the northwest coast of France.
The court also ruled on Tuesday that Total had civil responsibility in the accident, which killed tens of thousands of sea birds and soiled some 400 km (250 miles) of coastline.
Corinne Lepage, a former environment minister and a lawyer for plaintiffs who had sought a civil judgment against Total, hailed the ruling as a victory for environmental law.
“It’s very important for the future,” she told BFM TV. “It means oil companies will have to pay when they are careless and use junk ships like Total did with the Erika.”
Total has paid a 375,000 euro ($484,300) fine and nearly 400 million euros to groups involved in the clean-up operation.
There was never any question of recouping that money, but lawyers for the company had hoped to overturn the ruling and clear a stain on Total’s image on the grounds the Italian-owned Erika was outside French waters and flying a Maltese flag when it sank, limiting the applicability of French laws.
The lawyers argued that convicting Total went against international conventions that place liability for oil spills with ship owners rather than companies chartering the vessels.
In a challenge to that convention, the 2008 judgment against Total endorsed the argument that oil companies should be held responsible for the state of the tankers they use and backed the idea of “environmental responsibility” in such cases.
Total lawyer Daniel Soulez-Lariviere said after Tuesday’s ruling he was concerned at the precedent set by the French courts in contradicting the 1992 Civil Liability Convention. He said he would discuss with Total taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by David Holmes