A French court ruled that Total oil, the cargo owner in a 1999 oil spill that polluted 400km of coastline, is partially responsible for damages to the environment. The court faulted Total for “carelessness” in leasing the 23-year-old Maltese-registered vessel Erika, which had sailed under eight names and numerous owners. Despite the ship’s certification, the tanker bore “suspect shadowy zones of substantial corrosion,” the court said.
Also convicted were Italian company Registro Italiano Navale, which inspected the vessel; the ship’s Italian owner, Giuseppe Savarese; and Antonio Pollara, head of Italian company Panship, which was operating the vessel. Greenpeace is one of the plaintiffs and awardees of the $555,000 settlement.
This is a landmark case because owners of cargo are not usually held accountable. In today’s world of international shipping, the ship can be flagged under one country, but owned by a foreign company, and carrying cargo by another. The recent ruling should send a message that shippers will need to take responsibility for the condition of the vessels they employ.