A federal judge on Tuesday suggested that Union Carbide Corp. make a emergency contribution of $5 million or $10 million to the victims of the poison gas leak at Bhopal, India. A headline yesterday erroneously referred to the judge's action as an order.
A federal judge today told the Union Carbide Corp. that "as a matter of fundamental human decency," it should make an emergency payment of "$5 million or $10 million" to aid the victims of last December's poison gas leak at Bhopal, India.
U.S. Judge John F. Keenan, citing the continued suffering of Indians injured in the disaster, then set a court schedule that calls for Carbide and lawyers for the Indian government to devise a plan for relief aid and submit it to him by May 8.
Such relief, which Keenan suggested be funneled through groups such as the International Red Cross, would represent an "advance payment" against any overall settlement that Carbide reaches with the Indian government, he said. It would not represent an acknowledgement of liability by the company, Kennan added.
The judge's order came at a crowded pretrial conference on the Bhopal case here today in which a Carbide lawyer indicated the company may challenge the validity of scores of lawsuits against it -- including one filed last week by the Indian government -- if Carbide's offer to settle the case out of court is not accepted soon.
About 65 lawsuits, including many asking for billions of dollars in damages, have been filed against Carbide in U.S. federal courts since the Dec. 3 disaster. They have been consolidated in Keenan's courtroom for hearing.
Contrary to the traditionally slow pace of such mass disaster suits, Keenan made clear today that he believed the enormity of the Bhopal disaster and the need for prompt relief to victims mandated a prompt resolution of the claims.
Keenan also showed little tolerance for the squabbling among groups of American lawyers, including rival factions led by F. Lee Bailey and Melvin Belli, over who should play the lead role in the case. He ordered the bickering lawyers to select two of their members to serve, along with an Indian government lawyer, on a three-member plaintiff's "executive committee," saying that he would make the selection himself if they failed to agree on who should serve.
"If the reports I read are true, the situation is still critical there," said Keenan in talking about the need for emergency aid.
When Carbide lawyer Bud Holman said there were problems in helping victims because the Indian government had not yet provided a complete list of those injured at Bhopal, Keenan retorted: "When we have tragedies in the United States -- when we have floods -- we get money to the people who are sick, who are dying, who are hospitalized right away. We don't have to have precise estimates."
In the days immediately after the Bhopal accident -- in which an estimated 2,000 people were killed and another 200,000 were injured -- Carbide contributed $1 million for emergency relief to a special Indian government fund. It also offered another $840,000 to the local Indian state government in Bhopal, but that was turned down.
Holman said today "it would be possible" for Carbide to contribute the higher amounts suggested by Keenan for emergency relief. But he said the company's primary interest was in negotiating an overall settlement that would bypass the need for protracted litigation and provide complete compensation for victims as soon as possible.
The company's most recent proposal was a "substantial" and "very, very generous" offer that would have adequately compensated all the victims and exceeded what had been done in any previous disaster, Holman said.
Holman declined to divulge any figures, but a company offer was recently dismissed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as "very, very small compensation." It was reported in the Indian press to be about $200 million spread out over 35 years, but the company has not confirmed that figure.
Although the company is "trying very, very hard" to reach a settlement, Holman said, it is prepared to challenge vigorously all the lawsuits against it if an agreement could not be reached.
Holman charged that the Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan, which has been hired by the Indian government, had a "conflict of interest" in the case because it had represented Union Carbide on a matter within the last five years and may even have been chosen by the Indians for that reason. While the matter was not "substantial," the company may file a motion to disqualify the firm on those grounds, Holman said.
In addition, Holman said that as many as 35 percent of the 30,000 alleged Indian clients of U.S. lawyers who are suing the company may actually be "duplications" and would therefore not be valid. He said the company had found at least 700 duplicate names on the lists of U.S. lawyers' clients and another 7,000 "possible" duplicates.
Finally, he indicated in response to a question from Keenan that if the case was forced to go to trial because a settlement could not be reached, the company would probably argue that all the U.S. lawsuits should be thrown out on the grounds that the Indian courts were "the most appropriate forum" to hear them.
Holman's comments were dismissed by some of the U.S. lawyers he criticized. Asked about the alleged prior representation of Carbide, Lawrence Zelle, senior partner in the Robins, Zelle, firm said, "I don't know what he [Holman] was referring to."