The oil company Total SA suggests it may appeal a ruling by a court in France to pay almost three-hundred million dollars for a 1999 oil spill. Lisa Bryant reports from Paris that environmentalist said Thursday the ruling may create a key precedent for future spills.

Total said in a statement there were numerous grounds to appeal Wednesday's verdict by a French court that ordered the oil company and three other defendants to pay a total of $285 million in fines and compensation for the damages of a vast 1999 spill off the coast of Brittany.

The spill occurred after an aging ship, Erika, split in two in the Bay of Biscay. It was carrying 20-thousand tons of toxic heavy fuel oil which polluted 250 miles of French coast, causing major environmental damage.

The court blamed Total for carelessness in leasing Erika, a 23-year old vessel registered in Malta, which sailed under various names and owners. But Total was acquitted for charges of complicity in endangering people related to the vast spill.

Pascal Husting, director of Greenpeace France, one of the plaintiffs in the case, has hailed the decision, predicting a virtual revolution in maritime transport. He says it will set a groundbreaking precedent when it comes to future liability for pollution damaged.

"We expect this ruling to revolutionize maritime transport in such a way that all parties of maritime transport will be held responsible if something happens. So they can no longer hide (behind) almost mafia-like constructions, like the ship owner being in one country, the flag of a ship being in another country, the operations manager being in a third country. This will no longer be possible because the court in France has ruled that whatever (damage occurs) they will be held responsible," he said.

The French government has also praised the court's decision. Concern about aging tankers is not new in Europe. Another 2002 oil spill off the coast of Galicia in northern Spain, again caused by an aging vessel, pushed the European Union to ban single-hulled tankers carrying heavy fuel oil.