An article yesterday incorrectly said Washington lawyer John P. Coale claims to represent the city of Bhopal, India, in a suit against Union Carbide Corp. He no longer represents the city.
A Washington lawyer offered to pay $250,000 to the mayor of Bhopal, India, for help in signing up clients to sue Union Carbide Corp. over the Dec. 3, 1984, poison-gas leak there, according to a lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court.
John P. Coale, who was among the first U.S. lawyers to fly to India after the disaster and who claims to represent more than 50,000 victims, including the city government, denied the charges yesterday and called them "totally outrageous."
Coale said he hired Bhopal's former mayor as a consultant shortly after he left office, paid him $7,000 to $8,000 in fees and expenses, and agreed to split with him the profits from a proposed movie about the Bhopal tragedy.
"We had a big operation over there and we needed a lot of help," said Coale. "He the mayor was working for us. He was a powerful man in town and he could keep people in line."
But, he added, "It would be insane for me to go into a room with a foreign mayor who I just met and try to bribe him in a strange country. . . . This is an attempt to use the legal system to libel me, and I think the Indian government is behind it."
The lawsuit was filed by C. S. Sastry, a Fairfax County clothing trader who was hired by Coale the day after the disaster and who made three trips to India on his behalf.
He is suing for $300,000 that he says Coale owes him for services performed before the lawyer terminated their arrangement because of a business dispute earlier this year.
Coale said that Sastry was his tailor and that Coale hired him before his first trip to Bhopal because "I wanted somebody Indian who could speak Hindi. I had never been to India."
Coale said he paid Sastry $12,000 to $13,000 before he learned that Sastry also was working on behalf of another Washington-area lawyer during his trips to Bhopal.
The lawsuit comes amidst a heated controversy on the conduct of U.S. lawyers who traveled to India after the Bhopal disaster, which killed 2,000 persons and injured tens of thousands.
Lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages from Carbide have been consolidated in federal court in New York.
Carbide and others, including lawyers for the Indian government, have denounced the U.S. lawyers as "international ambulance chasers" and challenged the validity of their agreements with victims, most of which include standard U.S. contingency-fee agreements guaranteeing the lawyers one-third of any settlement.
For their part, the U.S. lawyers have insisted they are the only valid representatives of the victims of Bhopal.
A group of the U.S. lawyers recently negotiated a tentative $350 million settlement of the case that the Indian government has rejected as "totally unacceptable."
In the complaint, Sastry said that he accompanied Coale, Alexandria lawyer Arthur Lowy and one of Coale's investigators to Bhopal four days after the poison-gas leak. He helped introduce them to local officals, set up press interviews and sign up clients.
In one meeting with the lawyers, the mayor of Bhopal, Dr. R. I. Bisarya, "hinted how the system works," and Lowy offered $250,000 to the mayor, plus free trips to the United States, all expenses paid, "for his trouble and efforts," the lawsuit alleges.
According to Sastry's complaint, he, Lowy, Coale and the mayor then shook hands on the deal.
Bisarya "assured his full cooperation in obtaining the retainers and he would ask the city council to pass a resolution . . . appointing John Coale Associates to represent the City of Bhopal," Sastry said.
Lowy could not be reached for comment yesterday. Efforts to contact Bisarya in India also were unsuccessful. Coale said no such conversations ever took place.
Sastry also alleged in his complaint that, during one trip to Bhopal, Bisarya told him that Coale had promised to pay $200 for each new Bhopal death case he signed up.
After Bisarya complained that Coale owed him $5,000 for cases he already had provided, Sastry said that he personally paid Bisarya $1,800 in cash and 50,000 Indian rupees (worth about $4,300) on Coale's behalf.
He also signed over a $9,000 bond backed by a home Sastry owned, he said.
In exchange, Bisarya handed over 300 new death cases for Coale and signed several participants in the Bhopal incident to contracts authorizing them to be portrayed in a movie Coale was negotiating with a Hollywood production firm, according to Sastry's complaint.
Sastry also stated that Coale later sent $5,000 to Bisarya's sister-in-law in Kansas "as part-payment of obligations." Coale acknowledged the payment, but said it was for work Bisarya performed as a consultant.
Sastry and his lawyer, Sarabajit Singh, both refused to comment on the lawsuit yesterday.
Michael Ciresi, a U.S. lawyer representing the Indian government, said Coale's charge that the lawsuit was instigated by the Indian government was "categorically false."