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Marine Log

January 17, 2008

Court finds Total liable in Erika disaster

A French court yesterday ruled that Total SA was partly liable in the December 12, 1999 loss of the tanker ERIKA off the coast of Brittany which resulted in the discharge of about 20,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

Criminal and civil charges were filed against various defendants, including the owner, manager, charterer, and classification society.

While the ship's master and members of the French coastal surveillance services were acquitted, the court's findings of liability against the charterer (Total) and the classification society (RINA) are precedent-setting.

The court also recognized the existence of ecological damage "resulting from an attack on the environment," clearing the way for coastal communities to seek more money in damages from the defendants.

The court fined Total Euros 375,000, or $550,000, for maritime pollution, and a share of almost Euros 200 million in damages.

Giuseppe Savarese, the Italian owner of the Erika, was also fined Euros 75,000 for maritime pollution, and Italian classification society RINA, was fined Euros 350,000.

Read the International Herald Tribune report here.

In a statement issued yesterday Total said:

Total is pleased that the last employee facing charges has been acquitted and that Total S.A. has been acquitted for reckless endangerment.

Total is disappointed that the Paris Criminal Court has imposed a fine for maritime pollution in the criminal proceedings and also ordered it to pay compensation to civil parties, especially since the court has acknowledged that the actual cause of the sinking was beyond Total's control.

The court established that the sinking was caused by corrosion of the ship's structures and that this corrosion resulted from gross negligence of which Total could not have been aware.

Total was found guilty of recklessness in its vessel inspection and vetting procedure. Total voluntarily introduced this procedure to enhance its shipping safety. It is therefore hard to understand how it could be found guilty for alleged shortcomings in a procedure not required by law. Furthermore, the company's practices are compliant with standard industry practice.

To enhance efficiency and safety, international maritime law clearly separates the responsibilities of the main players in the shipping industry. The charterer is not responsible for inspecting and classifying vessels.

By assigning liability to Total, the court's verdict could create confusion concerning the responsibilities of the players and have the contradictory effect of making shipping less safe.

Total would like to point out that it is a leading contributor to the IOPC Funds and that all claims for compensation recognized by the organization have been settled. In addition, of its own initiative, Total spent more than Euros 200 million to remedy as quickly as possible the consequences of the oil spill by cleaning up hard-to-access areas of the coastline, pumping out the cargo remaining in the wreck and treating waste generated by the coastal cleanup operation.

There are numerous grounds for appealing the verdict. Total has ten days in which to file an appeal.

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