On 13th. November 2002 the tanker “Prestige” began listing and leaking oil. Her master and salvors requested the Spanish Authorities to allow the vessel refuge in sheltered waters but these requests were refused and the Authorities instead ordered the Prestige to proceed into the Atlantic in very bad weather.
On 19th. November, being tow away from the coast, the tanker broke in two and sank. The vessel was carrying 76,972 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and a catastrophic spill resulted.
The Criminal Court in Corcubión started an investigation into the cause of the accident and decided in 2010 that four persons should stand trial for criminal and civil liability. Those were the master, the chief officer, the chief engineer of the ship and the official who refused to grant the vessel refuge and instead ordered the vessel back to sea.
On 13th. November 2013 the Court of La Coruña rendered a judgement in the criminal proceedings acquitting all defendants of the criminal offences against the environment.
The master was convicted of an offence of disobeying an order from the authorities to co-operate in the towage of the vessel, but this was not the cause of damage.
Under Spanish law, an individual or company convicted for a criminal offence will also have a civil liability for the damage caused. Since the disobedience was not the cause of the damage, no determination of civil claims arising from the incident was made by the Court and did not award compensation.
Many claims (more than 2,500) were filed in the criminal proceedings and the total amount claimed in the proceedings is in the region of € 2,300 million.
Several parties appealed this judgment and on 26th. January 2015 the Spanish Supreme Court published an overturning judgment.
The Supreme Court has held that the master of the “Prestige” is criminally liable for damage to the environment. The master is also declared civil liable for all damages without the possibility of limiting his liability under the 1992CLC Convention since the Supreme Court has found that the acted recklessly.
The judgement also declare the vicarious civil liability of the owners of the vessel, who cannot limit his liability under the CLC Convention since the Supreme Court found the acted recklessly with knowledge of the risks.
The P&I Club involved, who had deposited the limitation fund (€ 22,777.986), is also held direct liable up to the limit established in the insurance cover in the amount of one billion US dollars and not up to the limitation under the CLC Convention. The direct action of those damaged against the P&I Club is recognized in the judgment of the Supreme Court.
Finally, this Court declares the strict civil liability of the Fund under the terms and amount of the 1992 Fund Convention.
The judgment of the Supreme Court is indeed controversial and a further appeal against it by the master is in principle expected.
If it is upheld, its future enforcement by the claimants seeking compensation would be a difficult one in practice. It is to be noted that while the criminal proceedings in Spain were in progress the Club started arbitration proceedings in the UK to obtain a declaration that claims against it could be brought only on the terms of the Club rules, including “paid to be paid” condition precedent to the Club’s liability.
An award in the club’s favour was rendered and the High Court issued a judgment in the terms of the award finding that the claims did not exist independently of the contract of insurance and therefore were subject to its terms.
With this scenario, the enforcement of the judgement of the Supreme Court, if not appealed or upheld in the future, would imply a big legal battle.
In the following link SUPREME COURT PRESTIGE JUDGMENT you can find the recent Supreme Court Judgment