An Oslo court ordered the Norwegian government Friday to pay three deep sea divers a total of nearly 30 million kroner (US$5.1 million, €3.7 million) in compensation and interest for health problems associated with working in the offshore oil industry.
The government has one month to appeal the ruling, which could bring a rash of similar cases if the judgment stands.
The so-called pioneer divers from the early years of Norway's offshore oil development, Magn Haakon Muledal, Angus Gunnar Kleppe, Dag Vilnes, won their suit against the government, claiming it knowingly risked their lives by sending them to extreme depths for profit.
A fourth diver, Asbjoern Joergensen, lost the case, formally brought against the Ministry of Labor and Social Inclusion.
Some divers complain of severe health consequences, including lung and brain damage. In December, a government survey said 20 percent of 139 divers active between 1965 and 1990 were on medical disability pensions.
When Norway, now one of the world's major oil exporters, was first developing its North Sea fields in the 1970s and 1980s, divers were sent to extreme and sometimes experimental depths to maintain and install equipment.
In its 93-page ruling, the court said, "as a result of the oil adventure, Norway is one of the world's richest countries" and the government, because of its strong role in developing the resources, has a responsibility to the divers for their injuries.
"A small group, about 400, of then strong, healthy young men took jobs as professional divers at the start of what we must call our oil fairy tale," said the court. "Even though saturation divers had very good pay, the court finds that many paid a price they had not anticipated: their own health."
It cited studies saying a disturbing number of those divers are now on disability pensions after their deep dives.
The plaintiffs said Norwegian officials accepted a maximum depth for dives of 400 meters (1,300 feet) until 2002, while the safe limit is now set at 180 meters (590 feet).
The court awards to the disabled divers, including interest, compensation and lost income, were 11.5 million kroner (US$1.98 million, €1.43 million) for Vilnes, 11.2 million kroner (US$1.93 million, €1.4 million) for Kleppe and 3.1 million (US$535,000, €387,000) for Muledal.