The decision makes legal history, meaning that plaintiffs can seek compensation for damage to the environment as well as for moral or material damage.
Former environment minister Corrine Lepage, who, as a lawyer, represented some of the plaintiffs, described the judgement as “total victory”, while environmental campaigners Greenpeace declared that it sent a “clear message” that polluters must pay.
The court upheld a fine of 375,000 euros – the maximum possible – and order to pay 200 million euros in compensation for the damage caused when the Erika, a 24-year-old vessel, broke up on 12 December 1999, spilling 20,000 tonnes of oil onto 400 km of France’s western coast.
Tens of thousands of birds were killed and the seabed was ravaged by the resulting pollution.
Total had argued that it was not responsible for the Erika, which was flying a Maltese flag and chartered according to a complex arrangement.
The public prosecutor’s office argued that a French court was not competent to judge the matter because the accident took place in an “economic exclusion zone” and was thus not in French territorial waters.