( dpa )- A Paris court Wednesday fined French oil giant Total 375,000 euros (556,000 dollars) for negligence in the country's worst-ever ecological disaster, the 1999 sinking of the oil tanker Erika, French radio reported.
The court said that this negligence on the part of France's largest company, which had leased the tanker, played "a causal role in the sinking ... and, as such, provoked the accident."
The court also found that Total had not taken into account the age of the Erika, which had been built 25 years before it sank, and the "disruptions" in its maintenance.
The Italian ship-classification company Rina , which had certified the 25-year-old Erika as seaworthy, was found guilty of sea pollution and fined the same amount.
The court also declared the ship's owner, Giuseppe Savarese , and the director of the Italian ship maintenance company Panship , Antonio Pollara , responsible in the affair and fined them 75,000 euros.
In addition, the court declared the four defendants jointly liable and ordered them to pay a total of 192 million euros in damage and interest to the French state and the four regions affected by the oil spill.
In recognizing a liability for ecological damage, the judgment represented a landmark in French jurisprudence and will likely be used as a precedent in future pollution cases.
The League for the Protection of Birds (LPO) will receive some 800,000 euros in the judgment, while the World Wildlife Fund of France and Greenpeace-France were granted 33,000 euros each.
"This is a first for France. It's a historic situation. I am very happy," said LPO president Allain Bougrain-Dubourg . "We are planting the roots for a law that will lead to more respect and potential compensation for the environment."
On December 12, 1999, the Maltese-registered tanker Erika, carrying some 30,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, broke apart and sank in a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Nearly 20,000 tons of the fuel oil it was transporting eventually leaked into the sea.
The spill was an ecological and economic disaster, killing more than 150,000 sea birds and polluting more than 400 kilometres of French coastline, which had catastrophic consequences for the fishing and tourism industries of the region.
A group of experts who looked into the affair reported in 2005 that the Erika had areas of corrosion at the base of its tanks, which should have prevented the ship from being certified seaworthy.
They also said that certain repairs to the ship had not been carried out, although its papers claimed that they had been. The experts called the storm a contributing factor to the ship's sinking, but not the only cause.
More than 100 plaintiffs had demanded 1 billion euros in damages from the various defendants.