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“Erika” shipwreck: anger as Total may escape blame

Translated Tuesday 10 April 2012, by Pauline Harrowell and reviewed by Henry Crapo

France’s Supreme Court in these matters may be about to overturn the entire judicial process relating to the 1999 shipwreck of the petrol tanker Erika, which caused massive oil spills on the coast of Brittany. There is anger across the political spectrum.

In his submission ahead of the Supreme Court session on May 24th attorney general M. Boccon-Gibod recommended “quashing without further right of appeal” the decision of the Paris Appeal Court, stating that the French judiciary was not legally competent given that the wreck took place outside French territorial waters, and that the vessel - carrying fuel oil for Total - was flying a Maltese flag.

On Friday Jacques Auxiette, Socialist leader of the Pays de la Loire region, which is one of the main plaintiffs in the case, complained that “the Supreme Court is about to set France 10 years back in terms of ecological protection. Local authorities, particularly the Loire, Brittany and Poitou-Charentes regions, as well as the voluntary sector, have been fighting for this for over 12 years, and our work is in danger of being swept away.”

Eva Joly, EELV (Green) candidate in the presidential election, commented on Friday that Total was “responsible” for the Erika affair and should be made to “pay”. In a press release, the Euro MP and former judge described as “shocking” the prospect that the ruling convicting Total for the shipwreck of the tanker off Brittany in 1999 could be overturned.

Corinne Lepage, who represents several communities along the coast, was “particularly surprised” by the Attorney General’s conclusions. “Previously the civil chamber of the Supreme Court had taken a completely different view, stating that the ‘polluter pays’ principle is public policy and should be universally applied” she said. The fact that compensation claims had been settled separately in the civil courts “made no difference financially but made all the difference in terms of jurisprudence” she stressed, adding “What economic interest is there in following safe procedures after this?”

The Breton association Vigipol, which represented some 80 local authorities and two départements (Finistère and Côtes-d’Armor) in the Erika trials, pointed out on Friday that overturning the judicial process at Supreme Court level had been mentioned at the initial trial and at appeal, but added that overturning the decision would be “scandalous but not perverse”.

Key facts of the Erika affair:

On December 12th 1999 the Erika foundered off the coast of Brittany with 37000 tonnes of fuel on board, causing massive oil spills on the Breton and Vendee coasts on 25th December. On March 30th 2010 the Paris Appeal Court, criminal section, upheld the convictions for maritime pollution against the classification society Rina, as well as against the ship’s owners and managers. The court upheld Total’s liability for lack of care in its choice of ship, with a fine of 375,000 Euros, whereupon Total lodged an appeal in order to contest this decision.

The Supreme Court is not obliged to accept the Attorney General’s submission, and it may not give its ruling on 24th May, deciding instead to deliberate further.

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