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On 24 February 2016, a French Navy aircraft observed a trace of pollution by oil-type in the wake of the bulk carrier THISSEAS, flying the Liberian flag. The pollutant slick was in the immediate wake of the vessel and measured 35 kilometres long and 0.05 kilometres wide. At the time of the incident, the vessel was located off the tip of Penmarch (Brittany), in the French exclusive economic zone. It was travelling from St Petersburg (Russia) to Yantai (China).
The Public Prosecutor at the Brest Regional Court requested the diversion of the vessel and its detention in the port of Brest. The captain refused to divert at first before obeying the order of his shipowner. The Russian shipowner quickly paid the bond so that the vessel could go back to sea.
Surfrider filed a complaint against the captain and owner of the vessel and filed a civil suit at the hearing before the Brest Court on 3 November 2016.The complexity of this case is based on the fact that the captain of the Thisseas is missing at sea. Indeed, he allegedly committed suicide shortly after leaving the port of Brest. In criminal matters, the death of the accused erases the proceedings and we did not know whether the Advocate General would decide to continue the proceedings. As opposing counsel was unable to show at the hearing a certificate proving the death of the master, the possibility that this was merely an attempt to evade his responsibilities could not be ruled out.
The public prosecutor therefore requested a fine of 1 million euros against the shipowner company for the largest discharge observed in the Bay of Biscay (approximately 60 m).
On 17 January 2017, the trial judges rendered their decision: they dismissed the shipowner's request to apply article 228 of the Montego Bay Convention to relocate the case to the flag State, Liberia, known for its complacency when it issued its registration. The judges also refused to consider the death of the captain for lack of evidence.
The shipowner appealed against this decision and the case was heard on appeal in 2018. On 13 September 2018, the Rennes Court of Appeal ruled that the public proceedings against the Greek shipowner and the Ukrainian captain of the Thisseas were terminated. Unlike the first instance judgment, the judges thus applied the provisions of Article 228 of the Montego Bay Convention, suspending the proceedings brought by the victim State for pollution committed by a foreign ship on the ground that the flag State (Liberia) had brought proceedings. Indeed, Liberia eventually initiated proceedings and sentenced the shipowner company definitively, by decision of 18 August 2017, to a fine of 300,000 euros reduced to 160,000. However, the Liberian Maritime Authority accepted the involuntary nature of the discharge and therefore found them guilty of negligent discharges of oil at sea.
This is a far cry from the million euros required by the Brest Court of First Instance against the shipowner company. Faced with this decision, Surfrider will appeal to the Supreme Court, in order to fight against the disorientation of this case by a State not very interested in environmental standards but also to ensure that the penalty is commensurate with the damage committed against the marine environment. In this case, the voluntary nature of the pollution is beyond doubt.