January 16, 2008 / 2:33 PM / in 11 years

UPDATE 4-Total found guilty in 1999 French oil spill case

(Adds comment from Greenpeace lawyer, background)

By Thierry Leveque

PARIS, Jan 16 (Reuters) - A French court ruled on Wednesday that oil giant Total SA (TOTF.PA) was responsible for the 1999 sinking of the tanker Erika and ordered it to pay millions of euros in damages for one of France’s worst environmental disasters.

Total, which chartered the rusting oil tanker, was fined 375,000 euros ($556,100) and told to pay a share of 192 million euros in damages to civil parties, including the French state.

Rina, the Italian maritime certification company that declared the Maltese-registered vessel seaworthy, and the ship’s owner and manager were also held responsible. Eleven others, including the ship’s captain, were found not guilty.

Total said it was considering an appeal and the firm’s lawyers said the ruling was out of kilter with international norms on shipping regulation.

But environmental groups like Greenpeace and plaintiffs welcomed a decision which punished an oil company directly for pollution caused by a ship it had chartered.

“It is a very severe warning to careless transport groups, to the floating garbage cans that cross the seas,” said Segolene Royal, former Socialist presidential candidate and head of the Poitou-Charentes region that was badly hit by the accident.

The Erika broke up and sank in heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay some 70 km (45 miles) off the French coast on Dec. 12, 1999, pouring 20,000 tonnes of toxic fuel oil into the sea.

The accident fouled 400 km of beaches and shoreline, crippled local industries including fishing, tourism and salt production and killed tens of thousands of seabirds.

The case finally came to trial in February 2007, just as Total announced record annual profits of 12 billion euros.

Before the ruling, civil parties had been demanding up to 1 billion euros in damages.

MURKY WORLD

The Erika trial was one of the biggest environmental cases to come to court in France, encouraging hopes among green groups that polluters would be held accountable for damage to the natural world as well as to business and economic interests.

The ruling recognised that a polluter could be liable for the ecological damage caused by oil spills, although Greenpeace lawyer Alexandre Faros said the principle needed clarification.

“It’s the beginnings of a recognition of a principle whose outline will have to be defined much more clearly in international law, in my opinion,” he said.

Total said it chartered the ship in good faith, relying on documentation certifying it as seaworthy and only learned that its internal structures were corroded after the accident.

“All the oil companies are going to have to get round a table to work out what the consequences are,” Total’s lawyer Daniel Soulez-Lariviere told reporters after the verdict.

“Everyone’s going to applaud. Whether it’s just, I say no,” he said. “Whether it’s a judgment in the general interest, I don’t think so,” he said.

The trial lifted the lid on a murky world of offshore- registered tankers and labyrinthine ownership arrangements that made it difficult to establish responsibility for the disaster.

Total was accused of marine pollution, failing to take measures to prevent the pollution and complicity in endangering human life, a charge of which it was found not guilty.

Total shares closed down 2.24 percent at 54.48 euros on the Paris stock exchange. (Additional reporting by Marie Maitre; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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