August 10, 2006
U.S. Judge says Spain must give ABS access to Prestige court file
U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has ruled that Spain must provide ABS access to the entire court file from the criminal investigation into the loss of the oil tanker Prestige that is being undertaken by a Spanish court.
The ruling rejected Spain's contention that allowing ABS access to the Spanish investigative file would violate Spanish law requirements that such information be available solely to parties participating in the criminal proceedings.
According to ABS, the file allegedly contains tens of thousands of pages of documentary and physical evidence, including statements by Spanish government officials, the Master and crew of the Prestige and the now deceased ship management executive Michael Margetis, transcripts of witness testimony and documents taken from the vessel prior to its sinking, including the log book.
The court--the Number One Preliminary Court of Corcubion (A Coruna)--also holds the steel sample of the vessel's sideshell structure that was cut from the wreck.
Observers of the steel reclamation project indicated that the hull sample was found to be thicker than the original specifications for the hull plating.
"Spain has had access to all this evidence and documentation that is crucial to gaining a full understanding of the casualty and yet has spent a great deal of effort to keep this information away from ABS," said Stewart Wade, ABS Vice President External Affairs. "This clearly placed ABS in an unfair position and the Court has confirmed that failure to provide this evidence to ABS would impede a full and fair adjudication of the allegations that have been made against us."
In her ruling on Spain's appeal, Judge Swain directly addressed this issue. "Fairness is a factor of particular importance here," she wrote, "where Plaintiff has unfettered access to myriad discovery items integral to the instant litigation possibly years before Defendants will obtain access to exactly the same material."
Spain had argued that to produce the Corcubion file would require it to contravene its own laws that require such documentation to be masked by secrecy until the conclusion of the Court investigation.
However, Judge Swain noted that "Spain's interest in keeping the contents of the Corcubion file secret are undercut in substantial part by the unrestricted access all parties to the proceedings have to the Corcubion File's contents, as well as the numerous media articles discussing the contents of the Corcubion File in the Spanish press."
To date, the information available in the Corcubion File has been relied upon by the Spanish courts in denying the appeal by the former Director General of the Spanish Merchant Marine, Jose Luis Lopez-Sors, challenging his imputation by the Court in Corcubion.
Lopez-Sors, who ordered the Prestige to sea, denying the vessel access to a place of refuge, continues to face the possibility of a criminal trial for his actions in handling the casualty.
In light of Judge Swain's order, ABS has requested that access to the entire Corcubion File be granted by Spain within 10 days. "In many respects Judge Swain's order frees the hand that has been tied behind our back and allows us to fully prepare our response to the meritless allegations that have been made against us," said Wade.
"We fully expect that Spain will comply with this order as it chose to bring the case in a U.S, Court and would risk various sanctions by the Court, including the possibility that its case could be dismissed, should it ignore this most recent ruling," he added.