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French court rejects damages for Estonia ferry victims and relatives

media Evidence displayed in the courtroom at the Nanterre courthouse on 12 April 2019 Jacques Demarthon/AFP

A French court has rejected a claim from survivors and relatives of the 1994 Estonia ferry disaster for damages from the French certification agency of the ship and the German shipbuilder.

Thursday’s ruling is the conclusion of a legal process that has been making its way through the French courts for 25 years.

The Estonia car ferry sank in September 1994, with 989 people on board. Only 137 survived.

Survivors and relatives of the victims quickly received 130 million euros from the ferry’s owner. The French case was for compensation for pain and suffering.

More than a thousand plaintiffs had been asking for 40 million euros in damages from Bureau Veritas, the certification agency of the Estonia Ferry as well as the shipbuilder Meyer Werft.

The case, which has been retried on appeal twice, was brought in France because Bureau Veritas has its headquarters outside Paris.

The trial opened in April, and plaintiffs argued that the companies knew the ship was not fit to sail but let it go anyway.

But the court rejected the compensation claims, saying the plaintiffs were unable to prove "the existence of a gross or intentional fault attributable to the firm Bureau Veritas and/or Meyer Werft”.

An investigation concluded in 1997 found that the locks on the ferry’s prow door had not held up to the strain of the waves and had separated from the vessel, allowing water to flood the car deck. But it has been impossible to determine exactly what caused the disaster.

Swedish authorities have always opposed the ship being brought to the surface for investigation, and it remains difficult to reach, 85 metres under water. Bureau Veritas has always refused an independent investigation.

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