Mother Teresa, winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, arrived in this stricken city today and urged survivors of the Union Carbide gas disaster to "forgive, forgive. I just ask everyone to forgive."
But a team of American lawyers, who arrived on the same plane as the Yugoslav-born Roman Catholic nun, brought a different message.
" 'Get Union Carbide' is the slogan," said John Coale of Coale and Associates in Washington, D.C., one of a number of American tort lawyers who have been descending on Bhopal for several days for what is shaping up as a battle of retainer agreements.
One group claims already to have signed up 7,000 plaintiffs, 2,000 of them widowed or orphaned by the Dec. 3 leak of deadly methyl isocyanate gas from the local Union Carbide plant. At least 2,000 people died, and tens of thousands of others were injured.
Coale said that people he has signed up for damage suits to be filed against the Union Carbide home office in Connecticut are not thinking of forgiveness, Coale said, but are going after the company with a vengeance.
The lawyers have filed a $20 billion liability suit against Union Carbide, the U.S. corporation that owns 51 percent of Union Carbide India. The Bombay-based firm operates the Bhopal plant.
Another of the lawyers, Federico Sayre, said, "They U.S. multinationals are maiming and killing people all over the world simply because some fellow in unbridled capitalism is making a profit." Sayre is a former partner of Melvin Belli, the "king of torts," who is due to arrive here Wednesday.
The lawyers are demanding compensation be paid according to U.S. standards, Coale said. He acknowledged that most of the impoverished slum dwellers affected by the toxic gas cannot comprehend the windfall they could receive. But "they know we are against Union Carbide."
"It's like I told you you were getting a billion dollars. You can't even relate to that kind of money," said Coale, a 37-year-old University of Maryland law school graduate who last week lost a liability suit in the Supreme Court brought by 12 former hostages of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
When asked whether others might perceive his current litigation as international ambulance-chasing, Coale said, "I don't care what they say. If I come in from the airport and two days later have 7,000 clients, that's the greatest ambulance chase in history."
He said he had been approached in Washington by Indian attorneys, and that Indian associates here had already prepared the groundwork for his campaign to obtain signatures on power-of-attorney forms printed in both Hindi and English.
Coale said that when he is finished, he expects to have 15,000 to 20,000 serious claims of major damage, and that they will be lumped together in a collective trial before a federal judge in Stamford, Conn. He said he has not contemplated filing a class- action suit, but that the cases will be heard together for convenience.
Jay D. Gould, of the Los Angeles law firm of Gould and Sayre, said his team will try a different approach in an effort to avoid "unseemly" competition for clients.
He proposed forming a legal aid committee composed of Indian lawyers that would serve as the plaintiffs' agent and sign up victims, and that his law firm would represent the committee. He said he plans to ask the Madhya Pradesh state chief minister, Arjun Singh, to give the committee official standing.
"We have not come here to run out and indiscriminately sign up plaintiffs," said Gould, who already has filed a $20 billion suit in the Eastern District Federal Court of New York.
Gould dismissed suggestions that attorneys' fees that in the United States normally are 30 percent of damages had motivated the frenetic legal activity this week in Bhopal.
"But for the lawyers, there wouldn't be Pinto recalls and other changes in corporate America," he said. "If the lawyers do nothing, the victims receive nothing."
Sayre, who represents United Farm Workers President Caesar Chavez, termed the litigation a "battle to rid the corporations of this incentive to sell defective products. They feel they have immunity and can sell their products. We'll continue to file lawsuits in the United States until the message gets through," he said.
Noting several spectacular successes in product liability in the United States, Sayre said, "The other half of the battle remains to be won -- stuff shipped to the Third World."
Ralph D. Fertig, a civil rights lawyer with the same California law firm of Gould and Sayre, said 90,000 jobs had been lost in the West Virginia-Kentucky area in the past 10 years because plants have moved to the Third World "where they can get cheap labor."
The California lawyers said they see a unique opportunity in Bhopal to determine the future conduct of multinational industries operating in developing countries, which, Gould said, represent "a substantial part of all the disasters looking for a place to happen."
Gould said that if a U.S. court determines in a case of these proportions that foreign nationals affected adversely by negligence of American firms operating overseas are entitled to press their claims in a U.S. legal forum, and to obtain compensation equal to U.S. damage awards, it could have enormous impact. This would not only affect the behavior of multinational-owned factories in the Third World but could result in a tightening of safety standards in those countries, he said.
"There's no reason the safety standards in those countries shouldn't be equal to or even better than in the United States," he said. He added, "The issue in this case is broader than compensation for the victims . . . it is deterrence of conduct by the multinationals."
The first hurdle for the lawyers, Gould and Sayres said, will be to convince the court that the Bhopal victims have no realistic cause of action, since India has no strict liability cause of action, as U.S. law does.
Access to strict liability cause of action in the Union Carbide case means that the plaintiffs do not have to prove negligence by the company, but must prove only that toxic gas spewed into the air and caused death, injury and suffering to those affected.
Moreover, they said, filing fees in damage suits in India are so exhorbitant that virtually none of the victims could afford to sue here. Gautam Philip, an Indian lawyer with the team, said that under a sliding scale designed to discourage capricious lawsuits, a plaintiff seeking only $10,000 in damages has to pay $300 just to file -- an amount most Indians cannot afford.