French court to rule on damages case in 1994 Baltic ferry disaster

Nanterre (France) (AFP) –


A court outside Paris is to rule Friday on whether a French certification agency and a German shipbuilder should pay compensation to survivors and relatives of the victims in the 1994 sinking of the Estonia, the deadliest accident involving a European ship since the Titanic.

The Estonia was sailing from Tallinn to Stockholm when it sank in bad weather in the Baltic Sea off Finland in September 1994, killing 852 of the 989 passengers and crew on board.

An international probe concluded in 1997 that the disaster was caused by a problem with the bow-door locking system.

Survivors and relatives were swiftly compensated for material damages from the now-bankrupt Estonian shipowner Estline.

But more than 1,000 survivors and relatives of the deceased battled for two decades for a court in Nanterre outside Paris to hear the case against the French company which certified the vessel and the German firm which built it.

The 1,116 plaintiffs are seeking more than 40 million euros ($45 million) in damages from French certification agency Bureau Veritas and German shipbuilder Meyer Werft.

The trial finally opened in April and one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Francois Lombrez, said the Estonia had been inspected 53 times by Bureau Veritas.

"This ship was not fit" to sail but "no-one did their job", he alleged on the last day of the trial.

However the lawyer of Bureau Veritas denied in the trial that the agency had committed any fault. Meyer Werft has said the construction of the ship was in line with regulations but it had not been maintained.

Swedish authorities have always opposed the ship being refloated for further investigation, prompting unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and claims of a cover-up.

Some experts, politicians and relatives in Estonia and Sweden have claimed that the sinking could have been caused by an explosion from a secret cargo of military equipment.

An admission by Sweden that Russian military equipment had been transported on board the ferry on at least two occasions in 1994 gave some credence to the theory.

But Estonian investigators have dismissed this explanation and authorities in Tallinn and Stockholm have always rejected calls to reopen the case.

The shipwreck of the Estonia is regarded as the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in European waters.

More than 1,500 people were killed in 1912 when the British passenger liner the Titanic sank off the eastern coast of Canada.