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Total Asks French Top Court to Reverse 1999 Oil-Spill Ruling

Total SA, Europe’s third-largest oil company, challenged a verdict that it’s criminally guilty in a 1999 oil tanker accident that spilled fuel along the French coast, arguing the law was wrongly applied.

Total, the ship certification company and individuals condemned by lower courts in the disaster asked France’s highest appeals court to overturn their convictions, arguing French law doesn’t comply with international maritime accords.

Didier Boccon-Gibod, an independent prosecutor for the court, told the court today that overturning the ruling “is the only legally possible outcome” because as this concerned a foreign ship outside French territorial waters, “this case raises unresolvable problems.”

The Erika, as the Maltese ship was called, leaked about 20,000 tons of fuel into the sea after the vessel sank off the coast of northwest France in a storm in December 1999. The 24-year-old tanker, carrying 30,000 tons of fuel, broke up in a storm with waves as high as 14 meters. While an Italian ship-safety inspector said the Erika was seaworthy, it was later found to have a rusted hull. The spill killed thousands of birds and polluted 400 kilometers (250 miles) of coastline.

Total was convicted of criminal negligence and fined 375,000 euros ($472,725) in 2008. It spent 200 million euros for a clean-up following the disaster and has paid 171 million euros to affected communities and the French government under a January 2008 verdict and doesn’t seek to recover those damages despite the decision by the Paris appeals court that it wasn’t liable for them, their lawyer, Thomas Lyon-Caen, told the court.

‘Crime of Negligence’

“What’s at stake in this hearing isn’t the indemnification,” Lyon-Caen said today. “It’s the crime of negligence,” he said, arguing that aside from the issue of whether French law could apply here, Total wasn’t legally obliged to vet the ship.

Patrick Spinosi, a lawyer representing areas affected by the spill, told the court it had an “especially rich” opportunity to impose its own interpretation of the law. Invalidating the earlier rulings was not the only option, he said, as the court could take advantage of “the lack of any jurisprudence” to rule as it thinks the law ought to apply here for the communities where the coastline was damaged.

The environmental harm was “tragic” but not a matter for French criminal law, said Boccon-Gibod, the court’s advocate general. “The law remains the law” and the court’s “only requirement is to apply the law.”

The court will rule on Sept. 25.

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