The Indian government plans to file a lawsuit against Union Carbide Corp. in the United States "in the next few days" on behalf of the victims of the poison gas leak in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 2,000 people last December, a senior Indian government official was quoted as saying yesterday.
In addition, the government said it had hired Robbins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan -- a Minneapolis-based law firm that has specialized in mass disaster litigation -- to file the suit and represent its interests at a hearing on numerous Bhopal-related lawsuits that have been consolidated in federal court in New York.
The government's action, which has been anticipated for several weeks, could strengthen the hand of U.S. lawyers who have been arguing that their own suits against Carbide should be heard in this country rather than India, some of those lawyers said yesterday.
But a Carbide spokesman said the Indian action would not change the company's position that "negotiation rather than litigation is the best way to receive a prompt and equitable settlement for the victims." The spokesman, Ed Van Den Ameele, said the company had no knowledge of the Indian government's planned action.
Elliot Kaplan, a lawyer for the Robbins firm in Minneapolis, said yesterday in a telephone interview that the firm planned to file a "parens patria-type action" on behalf of the government. The doctrine of parens patria is typically used by governments in such cases as environmental disasters where there are large numbers of victims who are not capable of filing for themselves.
Kaplan declined to say where the suit will be filed or how much in damages the government will seek. He said his firm has been involved in a number of prominent "mass tort or mass disaster" cases, such as the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, the Hyatt hotel collapse in Kansas City, and the Dalkon Shield suits.
Following a trip by the Indian attorney general to the United States earlier this year, the Indian Parliament passed an ordinance empowering the government to take over all litigation on behalf of Bhopal victims and to file claims for compensation in U.S. courts. Yesterday, Minister of State for Law H. J. R. Bharadwaj was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying that the suit would be filed here "in the next few days."
An official at the Indian embassy confirmed that a suit will be filed and added that Law Secretary B. S. Sekhon has been in meetings in New York in connection with the litigation.
Most lawyers involved in the Bhopal matter said yesterday that the Indian government's action probably would prove helpful to the plaintiffs' cases. But there was also some caution that the interests of the government and U.S. lawyers who have filed on behalf of victims might eventually conflict, particularly if the government seeks to assume control over all litigation.
John Coale, a Washington lawyer who traveled to India after the disaster and says that he signed up 20,000 to 30,000 clients, including the city of Bhopal, said that the Indian government's action "adds tremendous weight" to the plaintiffs' arguments that the suits ought to be heard in the United States rather than in India.
More than 35 lawsuits that have been filed against Carbide in federal and state courts in the United States -- some of which ask for tens of billions of dollars in damages -- have been consolidated in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge John F. Kennan in New York. Carbide has been expected to argue that, under the doctrine of forum inconveniens, the suits should be dismissed on the grounds that the proper forum is in India, not the United States.
The doctrine of forum inconveniens holds that a lawsuit should be heard in the court that is most convenient for the parties involved. Many legal experts have contended that because the accident took place in India, and most of the material witnesses reside there, U.S. Courts would be unlikely to accept the cases.