La Coruña Criminal Court of Appeal has recently handed down the judgment in respect to the criminal proceedings followed out of the sinking of The Prestige off the Spanish coasts back in 19 November 2002. In a nutshell the Court of Appeal in its 263 page judgment (click here) has held as follows:
Apostolos Ioannis Mangouras, Nikolaos Argyropoulos and José Luis López-Sors González are to be held non-guilty of the criminal offence against the environment for the sinking of the vessel Prestige. Only Mr Apostolos Ioannis Mangouras, the Master of the ship, is held liable of a criminal offence for not having obeyed the instructions of the Spanish Administration. He took 3 hours to obtain instructions from the shipowner regarding the engagement of tugs and was elusive to cooperate with the Administration. He has been sentenced to 9 months of jail.
The grounds leading the Court of Appeal to take this decision have included the following:
“No one knows exactly which might be the cause of what happened nor what should have been the adequate response to the emergency situation that arose, no one can deny the structural failure of the ship. In the proceedings it has not been proven where the failure took place nor the exact reason behind.”
The ship was formally certified by ABS as seaworthy. The ship’s failure was not detected in the regular inspections of the vessel and it did not correspond a failure that could be observed directly but through very complex analysis, which were not effected with sufficient professionalism, efficacy, or prudency.
The technical reports submitted to the Court on these proceedings are very elusive or imprecise, so no rigorous judgement can be obtained from them. They go on to state that the cause of the failure was due to extraordinary waves, the breaking of a bulkhead, and to defects of conservation of the ship. It is to be noted that the ship had at the time of the event all necessary certificates and documents required by international law. The facts show that the ship did not withstand the navigation on the day of the event, which suggest that the control or inspections of the ship failed.
If as evidenced in the proceeding the accused parties did not want the ship to sink nor they were aware of the ship’s deficiencies, or their causes, but they only assumed a risky navigation that could not be said to amount to imprudence, the crew of the Prestige that has been accused has to be found non guilty.
As regards the accusation against the Director General of The Merchant Marine Administration at the time of the event, Mr. López-Sors, the Court held that the Spanish Authorities were properly advised at that time by experts which advice can always be subject to error. The decision taken could be said to be arguable, that it may lack efficacy, but responded to logic and prudency.
From the criminal offence committed by the Master of the ship to disobey the Spanish Administration’s orders, the Court cannot conclude that the damages were the result of his offence and therefore the civil liability arising from this offence cannot be said to have caused the vast claims suffered by the claimants in this case.
Brief comment: In my stage at the European Commission in Brussels just before The Erika accident took place off the French coasts in 1999, I had the opportuity to deal with this subject and read books and studies. As I recalled it, these works on pollution accidents showed at that time that Administrations and the whole system tolerated deficiencies on ships to keep freight and commodity trade, particularly oil, very affordable. The situation has improved but The Prestige accident was not the result of the Master’s fault, it can only be said it was the result of the failure of international policies to tackle problems arising from, or enforce the law properly on substandard ships, and of course of the essential role played by classification societies in this regard. The mere fact that a ship holds all her certificates in order sometimes is just not sufficient to prove she is in good shape.
Dr. F. Arizon
Ph.D Newcastle, LL.M Southampton