France's highest court could annul a verdict against national oil giant Total over a devastating 1999 oil spill off the Brittany coast, a legal source told Reuters on Friday.
Total, currently battling to cut off a gas leak at its North Sea Elgin platform off Scotland, was found guilty for damage caused to a vast expanse of coastline and wildlife when the Erika, a 24-year-old tanker it had chartered, broke apart in a 1999 storm, spilling some 20,000 of crude into the Bay of Biscay.
France's top appeals court is to rule on May 24 on Total's appeal against that verdict and a source with access to the case documents said the public prosecutor will recommend a definitive annulment on the grounds the tanker did not sink in French waters.
The Italian-owned tanker was in waters classed as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and outside French territory when it sunk, and it was flying a Maltese flag, conditions which limit the applicability of French laws.
Total has paid nearly 400 million euros in clean-up costs, and a 375,000 euro fine, but a nullification would clear it of responsibility and leave the blame with the tanker's Italian owners.
Corinne Lepage, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who sought the civil judgment, said it would be unjust for Total to be let off the hook for one of France's worst environmental disasters.
The oil lobby is sadly very powerful in France and the world, she told BFM TV, adding that it was inherently wrong that a company making billions of euros in profits could use decrepit ships with impunity.
Total had no immediate comment.
The initial Erika ruling in 2008 ordered the French company to pay 192 million euros in damages to environmental groups, local authorities and others involved in the clean-up operation after a spill that killed tens of thousands of sea birds and soiled some 400 km (250 miles) of coastline.
In 2010, an appeals court raised the sum to 200 million euros. While it left open who should pay it, Total put up the money, on top of roughly 200 million in initial contributions.
Under France's legal system, the prosecutor makes recommendations to the court based on arguments made by the parties in the case.
Lepage, a former environment minister who was briefly a fringe contender to run in the upcoming presidential election, told RTL radio it would be a judicial catastrophe if the Cour de Cassation court followed the prosecutor's recommendation, also leaked to French media.
This would mean no-one would be held responsible when French coasts are soiled, she said. It would mean charterers like Total could continue, out of pure greed, to hire completely decrepit ships like the Erika and pollute the coasts with impunity.
(Additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Catherine Bremer)