ICS "Strongly Criticises" Spanish Supreme Court Decision in Prestige Oil Spill Case

Monday May 2, 2016

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) Friday said that it "strongly criticised" a January judgement by the Spanish Supreme Court in the so-called "Prestige Case" at last week's International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPCF) meeting, adding that it "now fears that the entire system of efficient compensation for oil spills could be put in serious jeopardy" as a result of the "unsound" judicial decision making.

As Ship & Bunker previously reported, the Bahamas-registered oil tanker Prestige spilled an estimated 63,000 tonnes of fuel oil in November 2002 after it sank off the northwest coast of mainland Spain - called one of the worst environmental disasters on the continent.

While a lower court in 2013 found no criminal or civil fault in the oil spill case, noting that none of the three accused were intentionally or seriously negligent, in October 2015, Spain's State Prosecutor was reported to be urging the Supreme Court to overturn a decision made by the lower court.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court is said to have overturned the lower court's decision, finding the Master criminally liable for environmental damages and handing down a sentence of two years in prison.

Further, the Supreme Court is said to have found that the misconduct negated the shipowner's right to limit liability for pollution damage under the 1992 Civil Liability Convention (CLC). 

ICS says that the Supreme Court's judgement, which it notes was reached in one day, without the addition of any new evidence and without the presence of the Master, raises concern around the "unwarranted criminalisation of seafarers."

Further, ICS says that "it is of great concern... that this decision may be used to support a claim to break the shipowner's right to limit liability and that the amounts then claimed would far outstrip those limits."

"These limits of liability are the essential quid pro quo for shipowners for agreeing a strict liability under the CLC regime.  However, under the CLC the right to the limits may be broken if it can be shown that the shipowner acted "recklessly and with knowledge that the damage would probably result."