(CN) – Multinational energy company Total Group may avoid paying the French town of Mesquer for the cost of cleaning its beaches after Total’s massive 1999 oil spill, when Maltese tanker “Erika” broke in two during a storm off the French Atlantic coast of Brittany. more
In Luxembourg, European Union Advocate General Juliane Kokott found that the more lenient French liability law is not in conflict with the European Union’s tougher Waste Framework Directive, the so-called “polluter pays principle.”
At issue are France and the European Union’s conflicting liability laws. The French high court, the Cour de Cassation, asked the European Union’s Court of Justice to interpret European community Waste Law after Mesquer sued in a French court.
Although the EU law is binding on member states, there is room for member state autonomy in the implementation of the law, as long as state interpretation in generally in accordance with the Directive. The French court must now decide whether Total acted recklessly.
The Directive holds the people who “cause waste” responsible for its cleanup, whether that means those in possession of the waste when it spills, or a previous owner, or whoever created it in the first place. In this case, Kokott found that the Directive would hold Total responsible for the costs as the seller of the oil, even though another company ran the tanker that actually spilled it. The Directive would also allow the court to charge Total for the disposal of the oil after it was cleaned up.
On the other hand, French liability law would only assess responsibility to the owner of the tanker, unless the court found that Total had acted recklessly or had intentionally caused the damage.
Additionally, French law limiting the liability of both the ship’s owner and the International Fund for Compensation of Oil Pollution Damage would be within the scope of the Directive because member states accept some responsibility for the dangers of importing oil by ship. Cost assignment will depend on the actual cost of cleanup.
The case will return to the French court for a final decision on Total’s liability.