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Maritime Law-M/T PRESTIGE Captain Innocent of Environmental Crime

As reported late last week in various news sources including the Maritime Executive, a Spanish court found the crew of the M/T PRESTIGE and the Spanish Merchant Navy not guilty of criminal responsibility of the sinking of the oil tanker on November 13, 2002. It was Spain's worst ever environmental disaster. The PRESTIGE sank off Spain’s northwestern coast and polluted thousands of miles of coastline and beaches in Spain, France and Portugal - prompting Spain to close its fishing grounds for about six months. The tanker was transporting about 77,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil on board.

Picture taken from 

Initially, the ship’s master Apostolos Mangouras requested a place of refuge for the tanker, which had a crack in its hull. But Spanish, French and Portuguese authorities denied the ship sanctuary. The Spanish authorities instructed the captain to take his ship further out to sea. After a storm damaged one of its fuel tanks, the ship drifted for days. The integrity of the ship's single-hull quickly deteriorated, and a severe storm eventually broke the starboard hull off the ship and subsequently spilled her entire cargo off Spain’s coast. Mangouras was taken into custody for "not cooperating" with salvage crews and causing environmental damage.

After an 11-year judicial investigation, the Galician region's high court said in a verdict and sentence that the disaster was partly due to the 26-year-old tanker's poor state of repair. Three judges of the Galician Spanish High Court concluded it was impossible to establish criminal responsibility and Captain Mangouras, Chief Engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos and the former head of Spain's Merchant Navy, Jose Luis Lopez, were found not guilty of crimes against the environment. Lopez was the only government official charged in the case. Mangouras, 78, was found guilty of a lesser charge of disobedience and given a nine month suspended sentence.

The judges noted the leak was caused by deficient maintenance which the court found the crew did not know about. The captain was accused of disobeying government authorities who wanted the 26-year-old tanker as far from the coast as possible. The court found that decision to be a correct one. 

Spain also attempted to sue the classification society ABS for the condition of the ship, but failed to win that attempt. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Spain did not provide sufficient evidence to take the case back to trial and clearing ABS of all charges. That court stated: "We conclude that we need not resolve the question whether a classification society may be held liable in tort to a third party such as Spain for reckless conduct in connection with the classification of vessels. Rather, we assume arguendo for purposes of this appeal that Defendants did owe the claimed duty to Spain. In our view, Spain has nonetheless failed to adduce sufficient evidence to create a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Defendants recklessly breached that duty such that their actions constituted a proximate cause of the wreck of the Prestige."
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