France high court upholds oil company liability for 1999 spill

[JURIST] The French Court of Cassation [official website, in French] on Tuesday upheld [judgment, PDF, in French] a lower court's 2008 decision finding French oil company Total [corporate website] and several other defendants criminally liable for an oil spill that occurred of the coast of Brittany in 1999. Over 20,000 tons of oil seeped from an oil tanker called Erika, which Total chartered from an Italian company, decimating 400 kilometers of coastline and causing harm to wildlife. Total was found guilty of failing to address maintenance problems on the 25-year-old tanker, and the ruling was upheld [JURIST report] by the Paris Appellate Court [official website, in French] in 2010. The Court of Cassation held [press release, in French] on public policy grounds that provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [text, PDF] relating to the protection and preservation of the marine environment justified punishing the unintentional release of petroleum causing serious injury to France's sea and coastline.

Total oil has faced a series of high-profile legal challenges. In April 2010 a French judge charged [JURIST report] Total with bribery and complicity in connection with a scandal involving the UN's Iraq Oil-for-Food program [official website; JURIST news archive]. The company denied the allegations, stating that the it had followed UN policy and acted lawfully [text, PDF]. In July 2010 a UK crown court ordered [JURIST report] five companies to pay £9.5 million in damages relating to the 2005 Buncefield oil storage depot explosion [investigation website; case materials], which has been described as the most costly industrial accident in the UK. Total UK, a subsidiary of French oil company Total, was ordered to pay £3.6 million, the second largest fine ever to be levied in the UK for safety offenses.

 

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