A Paris court has found the giant French oil firm Total and three other defendants responsible for a massive 1999 oil spill and ordered them to pay $280 million in damages.

The court ruled that Total's carelessness led to the sinking of the oil tanker Erika and also fined it $550,000.

The 25-year-old ship broke in half and sank in the Bay of Biscay, spilling 20,000 tons of fuel oil, killing thousands of birds and polluting hundreds of kilometers of coastline in one of France's worst environmental disasters.

The court also found the ship's owners, its operator and an Italian firm, RINA, that certified the vessel guilty in the case.

It is still to rule on whether ecological organizations and local bodies can sue for additional damages.

The trial opened in February of last year.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.