In his gratuitous attack on the lawyers in the Bhopal/Union Carbide cases ("The Lawyers Get Theirs First," op-ed, Oct. 22), James J. Kilpatrick has demonstrated that he knows very little about legal proclow whatever knowledge he does have to impede the clear purpose of the article: to smear the legal profession.
The column has a simple, unexceptionable premise: almost a year has passed since the Bhopal tragedy and the victims have not yet been compensated. However, Kilpatrick goes on to state that this is the fault of the lawyers in the case, while offering absolutely no facts to support this conclusion. Instead, he presents half-truths and inaccuracies.
He refers to hourly billings and ringing cash registers, while elsewhere acknowledging that the cases are being handled on a contingency basis (under which fees are not paid by the hour, and are paid only if and when there is an award or settlement). He blames the lawyers for delays in distributing interim relief to the victims, but fails to state what involvement -- if any -- the lawyers might have in disbursing such benefits. And he implies that while the victims may wait "five or 10 years" for compensation, the lawyers will, somehow, be paid sooner than that -- an especially inflammatory and utterly groundless statement.
In referring to the comments of lawyer Stanley Rosenblatt, Kilpatrick suggests that the plaintiffs' attorneys should charge no fees for their services. There may be some cases where the public interest would call for the donation of legal services. To suggest this in a case of the magnitude of the Bhopal litigation is unrealistsic and unfair. (In this vein, I cannot resist posing a rhetorical question: What other group, professional or otherwise, is expected periodically to provide its services for free, as are lawyers?)
Here are a few truths missing from Kilpatrick's polemic:
Most likely, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs are not billing "at $100 to $200 an hour," but will receive a percentage of the settlements received by their clients -- and not until the conclusion of the cases.
Under federal procedure, a motion to dismiss filed by a defendant "postpones" the requirement of filing an answer to the basic suit. Thus it is not at all remarkable that Union Carbide, having filed such a motion, has not yet filed an answer.
The process of "discovery," in which each side of a lawsuit requests documents, witness lists, depositions and other information from the other side, will be extensive and complex in the Union Carbide case. It makes no sense to begin this huge, time-consuming task until the motion to dismiss has been decided, and it is certain that the case will even go forward in this forum.
Many responsible persons, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, deplore the tasteless conduct of some attorneys immediately after the Bhopal accident. Yet it is quite another matter to demean the entire legal profession, with no factual basis, simply because this massive, complex litigation is not moving more quickly.
In fact, it should be noted that many of the plaintiffs have chosen to proceed in the United States, rather than in India, because our legal system promises a prompter and fairer result than in their own country.