NEW DELHI, DEC. 17 -- A district court judge today ordered the Union Carbide Corp. to pay approximately $270 million in interim relief for the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that left more than 2,000 persons dead and between 20,000 and 50,000 seriously impaired.
Judge M.W. Deo, who is presiding over the lengthy trial, rejected arguments by Union Carbide lawyers that he had no power to grant interim relief in the case and ordered the Danbury, Conn.-based multinational corporation to deposit the money with the court within two months.
The action appears certain to raise a major legal debate. It also throws a new element of confusion into a case that has been watched closely around the world as a test of a multinational company's liability for an industrial catastrophe.
Crowds gathered outside the Bhopal courtroom danced in glee over the judge's decision and showered each other with red powder, a sign of celebration. Lawyers for the government of India, the legal representative of victims, called the decision "excellent" while lawyers for Union Carbide said only that "we will study the order before taking any action."
Judge Deo, who often has expressed his concern for the victims of the gas leak, said his interim relief ruling would not prejudice any final ruling in the case.
Robert Berzok, a spokesman for Union Carbide in Danbury, attacked Deo's decision, saying it "amounts to awarding damages without a trial, a practice counter to the laws of India and the democracies. Although we are deeply concerned for the victims, interim compensation has never been allowed where the evidence with respect to liability is in dispute. Given strong evidence that the tragedy was caused by employe sabotage . . . liability for Bhopal is indeed in serious dispute and has not been determined."
Berzok added that the corporation had made a voluntary donation of $2 million to the Indian Red Cross to aid victims of the gas leak. He said other offers of "humanitarian" aid had been rejected by New Delhi and the Madhya Pradesh state government.
Under Deo's order, Justice P.D. Muley of the Madhya Pradesh high court is to administer the funds. He has been appointed head of a commission to handle payments to gas victims in the event of a settlement.
Today's action leaves a number of avenues open in the complex case. Union Carbide could comply with the order or it could appeal the decision within the Indian system and ultimately back to the U.S. courts.
The tragedy occurred the night of Dec. 2, 1984, when methyl isocyanate escaped from tanks in a fertilizer plant in Bhopal belonging to the Indian subsidiary of the giant Union Carbide Corp. As the chemical escaped into the night air, it formed a deadly fog that left a trail of death and injury.
The incident spawned a rash of lawsuits introduced first in U.S. courts and later shifted to a special district court in Bhopal when a U.S. district court judge ruled that India was the proper place for the case to be tried. Ultimate enforcement of an Indian court decision, however, still could fall to an American court, a question that could be tested with Judge Deo's order for interim relief.
Attorneys for Union Carbide and the government of India have been working for months on a negotiated settlement and are believed to have been closing in on a sum between $500 million and $650 million. When they told Judge Deo on Nov. 18 that they had not yet reached an accord, however, he ordered trial proceedings to begin.
At this point a young lawyer, Vibhuti Jha, who had intervened in the proceedings on behalf of a group called the Poison Gas Disaster Struggle Front, pressed Judge Deo to reopen the issue of interim relief, leading to today's decision.
Judge Deo cited English law and Sanskrit scriptures in building the argument that he had the right to order relief for victims pending a final decision.
The decision was immediately attacked by some Indian legal experts and defended by others.
"It is unheard of in the history of this country. I've never heard of such an order in the history of jurisprudence," said one expert, who asked not to be named.
"First, liability has to be determined. How can I be ordered to pay money before I am judged guilty? It is virtually like condemning a man before he is heard. The first thing to do is to find out guilt."
Equally forceful in defending the judge's right to act was Upendra Baxi, a leading Indian legal scholar who has supported greater pressure on Union Carbide.
Noting that three years have passed since the gas leak and that longer legal battles appear to be in the offing, Baxi argued that "courts have an inherent power to administer justice. Where laws do not touch on a matter the court can in the best interest of justice do whatever it feels is best" so long as the order makes it clear that the party gets its money back if it wins the case.
While no formula for compensation has yet been made public, Judge Deo's decision pointed in three directions: interim payments to victims, health care and generation of jobs for victims.