Convinction in Paris oil spill

January 16, 2008 7:54:43 AM PST
A Paris court convicted French oil giant Total SA on Wednesday over the 1999 sinking of an aging and rusting tanker in rough seas, which caused France's worst-ever oil spill.The court found Total guilty of maritime pollution and fined it the maximum penalty of $560,000. It also ordered Total and three other defendants to pay total damages of $285 million.

The court acquitted Total on a separate charge of complicity in endangering people and property.

The Erika, carrying fuel oil owned by a unit of Total, split in two and sank in rough seas off western France on Dec. 12, 1999. Nearly six million gallons of oil leaked into the Atlantic, killing up to 75,000 birds and blackening beaches.

The verdict was a stinging blow for Total, France's biggest company by market value. The Paris court faulted the company for "carelessness."

The 15 defendants all claimed their innocence during the four-month trial, which ended in June. Civil parties to the case are seeking more than $1.5 billion in combined civil penalties.

A year after the 1999 sinking, the European Union agreed on tighter controls on maritime safety, notably the phasing out of single hull tankers like Erika.

A subsequent investigation by France's Bureau of Inquiries into Sea Accidents blamed lack of maintenance and corrosion aboard the tanker as the main causes for the spill.