The Maltese-flagged MV “Erika” flounders off the coast of Brest in the Bay of Biscay on December 12, 1999. Photo: French Navy

(Bloomberg) — Total SA lost its bid to overturn a ruling holding it responsible for the 1999 oil spill following the sinking of a tanker it had hired.

France’s highest appeals court upheld a decision finding Total, Europe’s third-largest oil company, criminally liable for the spill, rejecting an independent prosecutor’s recommendation to overturn the ruling.

The Erika, as the Maltese ship was named, leaked about 20,000 tons of fuel into the sea after the vessel sank off the coast of northwest France in a storm in December 1999. The 24- year-old tanker, carrying 30,000 tons of fuel, broke up in a storm with waves as high as 14 meters. While an Italian ship- safety inspector said the Erika was seaworthy, it was later found to have a rusted hull. The spill killed thousands of birds and polluted 400 kilometers (250 miles) of coastline.

Total spent 200 million euros ($260 million) for a clean-up following the disaster and has paid 171 million euros to affected communities and the French government under the 2008 verdict. Total didn’t try to recover the damages, saying it was only concerned by the criminal finding and arguing to the court that French law didn’t apply as the ship was foreign-owned and sank outside French territorial waters.

Total could appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights, said Daniel Soulez-Lariviere, a lawyer for the company. A spokeswoman for the company didn’t immediately return calls for comment on the ruling.

-By Heather Smith. Copyright 2012 Bloomberg.
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