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French oil multinational Total lost their appeal on Tuesday to overturn a court decision that found the company guilty of negligence for a 1999 oil spill off the coast of Brittany. Paris’ appeals court turned down their case, and confirmed the conviction and a fine of 375,000 euros. The Erika oil tanker broke in two on 12 December 1999, polluting 400 kilometres of coastline.
The courts decision establishes a legal precedent by recognising that polluters can be held responsible for damage they cause to the environment.
Total were held accountable in 2008. The criminal court ordered them, and three other parties, to pay 192 million euros in compensation to civil plantiffs.
They were found guilty of failing to take into account the age of the vessel and disregarding maintenance issues.
Judge Joseph Valantin said the French company had “committed an error of negligence that is linked to the sinking” of the Erika and it was as a “direct consequence of the serious rust corrosion” caused by “insufficient maintenance of the ship”.
The 25-year-old ship was carrying 20,000 tonnes of oil when it sank, prompting a stoppage in fishing and preventing shellfish consumption, leaving the local economy damaged for years to come.
The French oil giant had tried to argue that the Italian shipping certification firm that issued a clean bill of health for the aging Erika was responsible.
It took more than three months to clear the spill and over 50,000 birds were killed.