BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - A court on Tuesday struck down a ruling that French railways must compensate the family of a Jewish man transported to an internment camp in Nazi-occupied France, dealing a blow to hundreds more claims.
Judges in an administrative appeals court in southwestern Bordeaux said administrative courts were not competent to rule on the legal liability of state rail operator SNCF.
The ruling means plaintiffs will have to bring their cases before civil or criminal courts where lawyers say they have far less chance of success.
“This is an extraordinarily important decision and will weigh heavily,” SNCF lawyer Yves Baudelot told Reuters. “This decision shows that the SNCF acted under coercion and had no room for manoeuvre.”
The decision overturned a landmark verdict last June in which a court ordered SNCF and the French government to pay 61,000 euros (41,000 pounds) to the family of Georges Lipietz, a Polish-born Jew arrested by French police and taken by train to a transit camp near Paris in 1944.
Aged 21, Lipietz was arrested with his 15-year-old half-brother and taken in a cattle wagon to Drancy outside Paris, where they spent three months before the allied victory spared them Auschwitz or another death camp.
Although Lipietz has died since bringing the action against the SNCF in 2001, his family pursued the case and vowed to appeal Tuesday’s verdict to France’s top administrative court.
“We will turn to the Council of State, to get it to say ‘yes, the SNCF must be judged by administrative courts’,” Lipietz’s son Alain, a Green European deputy, told reporters.
President Jacques Chirac officially acknowledged French complicity in the wartime deportation of Jews for the first time in 1995. But it took a ruling in 2001 to make it possible to sue the French authorities for compensation.
Some 76,000 Jews were arrested in France during World War Two and transported in appalling conditions in railway boxcars to concentration camps such as Auschwitz where most died.
The SNCF, which has received 1,800 requests for compensation since the ruling, said it had been forced to obey the orders of the government of the time and the German occupiers.
Some historians and Jewish groups said lawsuits were misguided and opportunist and there have been suggestions the families and lawyers were motivated by financial considerations.
The Bordeaux court ruled SNCF had been requisitioned by the collaborationist Vichy government and had not acted on its own authority.
But lawyers for the families say SNCF acted out of greed, pointing to evidence it charged French authorities the price of a third-class rail ticket for each person loaded into its cattle wagons.