You have seen the scene in "Gandhi," if not some other motion picture: the sun is finally setting over the British Raj. The flag of England is coming down and that of India (or Burma or Kenya or most any other Third World country) is going up. There are cheers. There are tears. The camera pans and then pauses on a face. It's Melvin Belli.
Melvin Belli, the negligence lawyer? Of course. He's in our picture because he has come to represent the Third World victims of First World technology. In the instant case, as the lawyers like to say, it is the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in India. God knows precisely how many people died, how many were blinded or burned. God may still be totaling things up, but already the lawyers have filed their claims. They are seeking a mere $20 billion.
The newspapers say that Belli is on his way. Already, other American lawyers are on the scene, thrusting consent forms written in both English and Hindi at the injured and the families of the dead. This is ambulance chasing on a global scale, a new type of colonialism. If only the British had settled for a third of the profits, the sun might never have set on their empire.
America has loosed its lawyers on the world, and there will be no hamlet, no village, no shepherd high in any mountain safe from their process servers. Some of the lawyers even talk lefty jargon. They are out to battle the evil multinational corporations, such as, I imagine, Union Carbide, for transferring high-paying jobs out of the United States to Third World countries where meek employees work cheaply and no one has ever heard of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some of these lawyers talk of the multinationals as if they were evil incarnate: "They are maiming and killing people all over the world," one of them said. There is something to this proposition, of course, but it would sound better if the speakers did not have a 30 percent interest in proving the truth of their argument. As a general rule, no revolution should work on a contingency basis.
I suppose only a bleeding heart would think the Third World should be spared the benefits of negligence law. We, after all, have lived with it for so long we hardly notice that it's the only form of socialism we countenance -- and that's only because lawyers take their cut. Take an airplane crash, for instance. Almost any time a plane goes down, you'll have negligence of some sort. It would be cheaper just to acknowledge that, reach an agreement and make the payments. But no sirree: First the lawyers have to do their thing. They hike the payments, take their cut, and their clients are left with what they would have gotten without a lawyer -- or less.
It is the same in India. The lethal gas that smothered the city of Bhopal came from Union Carbide. The company admits that. The trick now is to see that the victims are compensated and that as much money as possible goes to them. To litigate an open-and-shut case and take 30 percent from people who have already been victimized is just another form of exploitation.
The irony for the Third World is that political independence did not end economic dependence. India, for instance, suffers first from a disaster at the hands of an American company and now will have justice done by American lawyers in American courts. This is insult added to injury: An American corporation does damage and then American lawyers come over to profit from it.
All the fine rhetoric aside, the motive was money. It's the reason Union Carbide is in India. It's the reason the streets of Bhopal are now polluted with American ambulance chasers. The First World remains the deus ex machina of the Third, a force that both creates and resolves the situation.
So from the West, on wings of greed, come the negligence lawyers. They will complicate the uncomplicated, right the wrong, and take 30 percent back to America when they are finished. This is the movie you never saw. In this one, the sun never sets on negligence law.