The chief lawyer for Union Carbide Corp. said today that the number of victims of the poison gas leak in Bhopal, India, has been significantly exaggerated by the Indian government and by American lawyers.
In addition, many of the reported injuries involved only minor ailments, such as temporary nausea and eye irritations, Carbide lawyer Bud G. Holman said in a telephone interview.
Holman's comments were sharply challenged by a lawyer for the Indian government, who accused the company of "going on a public relations attack to shift the focus away from their activities."
The debate over the number of victims, coming only one day after a federal judge set a court schedule for the large number of lawsuits filed against Carbide, underscores the numerous unanswered questions that still surround the Dec. 3 accident when a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked out from a Carbide plant and spread over the city of Bhopal. It is believed to be worst industrial accident in history.
In a lawsuit filed against Carbide last week, lawyers for the Indian government said that the "recorded death toll to date is approximately 1,700 persons, and as many as 200,000 persons have been physically injured." But, the suit added, the total number of victims and the severity of the injuries could not be determined until the government completes surveys and numerous scientific and medical studies of the victims.
A number of public interest and medical groups in India have estimated the death toll at Bhopal to be between 10,000 to 30,000, contending that many of the victims were cremated or dumped in mass burial spots without any record ever being made.
Compiling accurate figures has also been complicated by the large numbers of impoverished beggars and nomadic gypsies who were living in Bhopal at the time for whom no records existed, according to Arun Subramaniam, an investigative journalist with the magazine Business India. Subramaniam is currently touring the United States.
But Holman, a partner in the firm of Kelley, Drye & Warren, said that the company only accepts 1,408 deaths that were "recorded" at Bhopal hospitals and believes the true number of injuries to be "a small fraction" of the 200,000 figure used by the government.
He declined to give a specific number for injuries but said the company's assertions of a lower figure were based in part on a computer analysis of the names of the total of 30,000 allegedly injured plaintiffs who appear on 881 lawsuits that have been filed against Carbide in India and another 71 suits filed against the company in the United States.
Elaborating on an argument he first raised before U.S. Judge John F. Keenan on Tuesday, Holman said that his law firm's analysis had found 700 duplicate names among the lists of plaintiffs, another 3,000 to 4,000 "probable" duplications and additional 3,000 to 4,000 "possible" duplications. All told, he said, about 35 percent of the alleged plaintiffs may be fraudulent or duplicates.
"The Indians signed every form that was put in front of them by runners on the streets," said Holman, referring to retainer agreements signed by Bhopal victims. "Some of them were being paid. They were given a couple of rupees to sign those things."
The duplications in the suits "suggest to us that the number of injuries" have been significantly exaggerated, Holman said. "Those numbers are a small fraction of what the Bellis of the world have been bellowing about," he added in a reference to Melvin Belli, one of the lawyers suing Carbide.
Asked about Holman's comment, Indian Embassy spokesman Deepak Vohra said the number of Bhopal victims "has been clearly stated in our lawsuit and is based on the recorded information . . . There's no doubt about the figures."
Michael Ciresi, one of the U.S. lawyers representing the Indian government, called Holman's comments part of a "public relations attack" and an "unprofessional" attempt to try his case in the press. He also said the government hoped to meet a request by Keenan to submit a computerized list of Bhopal victims to the court by May 1.
While acknowledging that some Bhopal residents suffered serious respiratory damage and tuberculosis, Holman also contended today that many other injuries were not as serious as initially reported.
"Someone in Bhopal that might have smelled gas and felt bad was not signficantly affected," said Holman. "There were people who fled their homes; there were people who were upset that night. There may have been people who went to first aid because they had felt nausea and or felt ill and then left."
Holman's depiction of Bhopal deaths and injuries differ markedly from the accounts given last week in Washington by Indian journalist Subramaniam and Dr. Ramana Dhara, a physician with an Indian public interest health group called Medico Friend Circle.
Dhara, who has worked in Bhopal since the accident, said the number of "sick and suffering today is 50,000 to 60,000," including undiagnosed ailments such as menstrual cycle disruptions and vaginal discharges among women, as well as permanent lung and eye damage. The ailments have been complicated because, in the days after the accident, Indian doctors had little knowledge of how to treat people for MIC inhalation and, thus, frequently gave the wrong medication, they said.
"It was obviously very chaotic," said Dhara. "It was like an assembly line of treatment. People were dropping like flies in front of them."