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Erika Oil Spill Trial

Before giving their verdict the magistrates grounded their judgement on the compatibility of the 1983-07-05 law on pollution offences and the international MARPOL convention that has so far made legal action over pollution impossible against oil companies. Having defined its jurisdiction, the court examined the respective liability of each of the fifteen defendants for the damage incurred by the tanker and for the oil spill that soiled some 400 km (250 miles) of French coastline in December 1999.

The plaintiffs’ first ground for satisfaction is that the court found Total guilty of causal negligence, i.e. negligence that had “a causal role” in the catastrophe and “as such brought the disaster about”. The magistrates did not pass sentence on the oil company in its quality of charterer for that status would have made it immune to sanctions under international maritime conventions but they circumvented the difficulty by holding it liable for the ship’s “vetting”. Total, they argued, overlooked both the age of the tanker and the discontinuity in the ship’s technical management and maintenance. As a consequence, the oil company, which is the world’s fourth largest, will have to pay the maximum fine for a legal entity, namely 375,000€. RINA was given the same financial penalty.

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