A company is liable if its legal representative commits an offence.

In a ruling handed down on June 13, the Criminal Division of the French Supreme Court (Cour de cassation) reiterated that only a criminal offence committed by a company's legal representative can result in the company being convicted.

The facts

In this case, a complaint had been filed following discharges and runoff of effluent laden with fecal matter from a wastewater treatment plant. The samples taken did not comply with the maximum levels authorized by the prefectoral order of October 1, 2014.

In February 2012, under a leasing contract, operation of the plant, due to be dismantled in 2014, was entrusted to a company responsible for its supervision, operation and maintenance.

In the first instance, the judges found the municipality owning the wastewater treatment plant, and the company in charge of its supervision, operation and maintenance, guilty of discharging into freshwater a substance harmful to fish or to their nutritional value, and ordered that it be posted. They were also ordered to restore the site to its original state, subject to a fine.

The parties then appealed against this decision. The Court of Appeal ruled against them, stating that the company, by choosing to continue operating the wastewater treatment plant despite being aware of the risks involved, had committed the offence. The fact that the company's director had recognized the treatment plant as "structurally non-compliant" was also taken into account by the court to justify its decision.

The company appealed to the French Supreme Court, arguing that it could not be held criminally liable because the alleged offence had not been committed on its behalf, by one of its representatives.

Conditions for corporate criminal liability

On June 13, 2023, the Criminal Division of the French Supreme Court (Cour de cassation) handed down a ruling in which it recalls that, in accordance with articles 121-4 to 121-7 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, legal entities, excluding the State, are criminally liable for offences committed on their behalf by their bodies or representatives.

In finding the company guilty of the facts, the Court of Appeal noted that it had been aware of the cause and the risks involved. As soon as it signed the contract, it knew that it was not in a position to operate the wastewater treatment plant in compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. However, the Court of Cassation ruled that the company could not be found guilty, since it had not been proven that the director, who had acted on behalf of the company, held a delegation of powers and attributions conferring on him the status of its legal representative.

The Court concluded that in order to convict a company, it was essential to demonstrate that the offence had been committed on its behalf and by one of its legal representatives. As these conditions had not been met, it quashed the decision of the Court of Appeal.