Earlier today, 25 September 2012, (judgment here, in French) the Cour de Cassation in Paris ruled on the long-running question of whether Total is criminally and civilly liable for the loss of the Erika on 12 December 1999 and the consequent spillage of some 20,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, affecting some 400 km of the French coastline.
The case has see-sawed so far. The Criminal Court of First Instance, and the Court of Appeal in Paris had said that Total and others were responsible, though the Court of Appeal did not make this finding in respect of the civil claims. Next, the prosecutor, Advocate-General Boccon-Gibod, expressed his view to the Cour de Cassstion that Total was not liable at all. But his view was not shared by 80 parties who appeared before the court, including the affected communes Now, the court has finally ruled in favour of those polluted, both under the criminal and civil laws, as against Total and other responsible parties – all these issues have been decided in the same decision, in a way which may seem a bit odd to UK lawyers who generally put criminal and civil law in different boxes.
The judgment is pretty weighty, some 330 pages of legal French – as is standard, this is all written as one huge sentence – broken up by multitudinous semi-colons. it is not easy to digest, to say the least, but I shall try and give the bare bones of the decision.