2008-01-18 Sarah Elzas
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French company ordered to pay nearly 200 million in damages

We stay in France for some more serious news: last Wednesday The French oil company Total was ordered to pay it's a share of nearly 200 million in damages for a 1999 oil spill off the northwest coast of France. The Erika oil tanker broke in half in December of 1999, spilling almost 20-thousand tons of crude oil into the sea—which killed hundreds of thousands of birds along 400 kilometers of coastline. Radio France International's Sarah Elzas was at the courtroom in Paris for the verdict:

The opening bell in the courtroom, which was packed with lawyers and spectators. The judge spent almost two hours reading out charges and the decisions against the 15 defendants who had spent four months in court last summer. The judge exonerated the ship’s crew as well as the French Maritime authority which had been accused of not reacting quick enough to the disaster. He named four entities responsible for the spill: the ship’s owner; it’s manager; the certification company RINA; and Total

The oil spill affected hundreds of thousands of birdsThe oil spill affected hundreds of thousands of birds
The judge said the owner and manger were responsible for skimping on repairs on the 23 year old ship that was to carry highly polluting crude oil. RINA’s inspections and Total’s vetting process allowed the ship to go through. The judge read out fines to the defendants standing in front of him: 375 thousand euros for the two companies, and 75-thousand for the two individuals. But that wasn’t all—the judge then started reading out individual reparations payments. Those ended up totaling 192 million euros. These were requested by 101 plaintiffs who claimed to have suffered from the oil spill.

“It’s just little people who work in the sea, who work on the beach, and really people who don’t have a lot of money, who lost everything”

That’s Emmanuel Rigler, a lawyer who represented some of the claims. Emmanuel Ludot, represented small businessmen along the coast, said many of his client’s didn’t come to court because they were convinced they’d get nothing. He gives one example: a tourism company that received some money from the International fund set up to compensate victims of oil spills. But it wasn’t enough. The Erika decision, he says, allows people like them to get their lives up and running again. His clients got around 5 or seven thousand euros each. The IOPC or International Oil Pollution Compensation funds give money to victims who suffer damage from oil spills.

About 185 million euros was made available for the Erika disaster - coming from the ship’s insurance, among other sources. The addition 192 million from Wednesday’s decision will help them even more. While some of the 101 plaintiffs were NGOs and businesses—even individuals—most were cities, departments and regions. Alexandre Moustardi, a lawyer working with former Environment Minister Corine Lepage, represented some cities along the Atlantic coast - like La Baulle.

Volunteers cleaning the coast hit by oil spillVolunteers cleaning the coast hit by oil spill
Cities got reparations for things like image damages. Also for their share of the cleanup operation—buying shovels and buckets and things like that. But they didn’t get environmental damages—those went to bigger entities, like the regions and departments— The judge deemed them responsible for the environment, not cities. Yanick Jadeau, who runs Greenpeace France, says he’s very happy with the decision, but that it didn’t go quite far enough on the environmental front:

“The ecological prejudice has not been recognized in the law. So we are still in some confusion about that type- how do we somehow compensate for a bird that was killed”

Do birds have rights in French law?

Greenpeace was awarded 30-thousand euros of the reparations. Total—which maintained its innocence throughout the trial--has not said whether or not it will appeal the decision. A lawyer said he’d advise the company to do so. A spokesman said they’d study the decision.

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