A raucous legal battle over who should represent the more than 200,000 victims of the poison gas leak in Bhopal, India, is expected to begin Tuesday amid angry charges of conflicts of interest and unethical conduct among the U.S. lawyers suing Union Carbide Corp.
As many as 100 of those lawyers are expected to file into a federal courtroom here for a pretrial conference called by U.S. District Judge John Keenan, who has been assigned some 55 lawsuits filed over the Bhopal disaster.
The lawsuits ask for billions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages from Carbide, whose Indian subsidiary owned the Bhopal plant where a massive release of deadly methyl isocyanate killed more than 2,000 persons and injured an estimated 200,000 others on the morning of Dec. 3, 1984.
But in recent weeks, much of the attention has focused on the increasingly bitter squabbling among three groups of U.S. lawyers and the Indian government over who should be lead counsel in representing the Indian victims, according to many of the lawyers involved.
The three groups of lawyers, including one headed by veteran Boston defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey and another associated with Melvin Belli, each have submitted proposals to Keenan naming proposed "steering committees" of plaintiffs' lawyers and asking that their group be designated as lead counsel. Keenan's resolution of this dispute could be significant because the group that is chosen is likely to grab the lion's share of the fees in what could be the biggest mass-disaster award in history, some lawyers say.
"This is a rat race I wouldn't miss for anything," said Belli, one of the many lawyers who have flocked to New York in the past few days for Keenan's hearing.
The debate among the lawyers was further inflamed last week when the Indian government filed its own lawsuit against Carbide based on a law recently enacted by the Indian parliament giving the government exclusive right to represent Bhopal victims.
That same day, some of the U.S. lawyers challenged the law in New Dehli on the grounds that, among other reasons, the government had a "conflict of interest" in the case because of its own alleged failure to regulate the Bhopal plant properly.
Then, in a motion submitted to Keenan late Friday, the Minneapolis-based law firm of Robins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan, which has been retained by the Indian government, argued that it should be the lead counsel in the case. It further asked the court to require each of the other U.S. lawyers to go back to their injured clients in India, notify them of the new law and ask if they still wish to be represented by private counsel rather than the government at no cost.
"It makes it damn clear that they want to run this case and they're the only ones who are entitled to do so," said Jerry Cohen, a Washington lawyer who is co-chair of a 29-member proposed steering committee that includes Belli. "I consider this an act of brutal arrogance."
Meanwhile, Cohen's group has come under attack from Bailey and his law partner, Aaron J. Broder, over the issue of contingent fees. Broder, who with Bailey heads an alternative 27-member proposed steering committee, charged last week that Cohen's lawsuit against the Indian government was really an attempt to shove the Indians aside so U.S. lawyers can collect huge contingent fee awards.
Cohen denies that his group is principally concerned with fees, and countercharges that Bailey and Broder have been pushing for a settlement, rather than litigation, so they could be the main negotiaters with Carbide. Broder "wants a special settlement committee set up so he could be the lead counsel," Cohen said.
"Nobody likes Bailey and Broder," added Belli. "Nobody wants to have anything to do with them."
In addition to the dispute among the U.S. lawyers, Keenan also could hear arguments Tuesday from lawyers for Carbide that the cases should be heard in the Indian courts rather the U.S. courts on the grounds that all the material witnesses to the disaster are in that country. But the fact that the Indian government has contended in its lawsuit that the U.S. courts are a more appropriate forum undermines that argument, according to some legal experts.