Speedy benefits for Bhopal: how likely?

Most of the key parties involved in the legal cases that stem from the Bhopal , India, poison gas tragedy say a speedy, out-of-court settlement is the most humane solution possible.

The attorney for the government of Bhopal and at least 25,000 residents - by far the largest group represented by an American lawyer - says his clients need compensation as fast as possible. A negotiated settlement could come about in a few months, says John Coale, the attorney, whereas class-action suits now filed in the United States could take five years or more to resolve.

''People need help now,'' says Mr. Coale, just back from India in Washington, D.C. ''Money five years from now won't help.''

Early on, Union Carbide indicated it favored quick resolution, too, but so far, lawyers say, the company has not contacted representatives of Bhopal victims to begin negotiations.

Coale, who represented some of the American hostages in the Iranian crisis, believes Union Carbide will talk with him and ''one way or another'' reach settlement, because he represents the Bhopal government and so many Bhopal residents.

Other lawyers interviewed questioned his connection with the government, but Coale says he has a retainer from the mayor as well as a letter stating that he is indeed the city's representative.

At a press conference here last week at company headquarters in Danbury, Conn., Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson said that ''. . . stretching this out interminably doesn't solve anybody's problem.'' Referring to Manville Corporation, the asbestos manufacturer which filed for bankruptcy several years ago after an onslaught of personal injury lawsuits, Mr. Anderson added: ''We don't want to get this thing into an asbestos kind of issue where nobody gets any benefits after years and years of engagement.''

Coale finds this attitude encouraging and says he won't file suit unless negotiations fail. He said he would try to set up a meeting with Union Carbide this week. He would not pinpoint the damages that will be sought, because the final amount will have to result from the negotiations.

Talks with Indian survivors in Bhopal and on an evacuation train to New Delhi gave Coale the impression that most people want ''reasonable'' compensation. ''They have all heard that US attorneys could get them a fortune,'' he recalls, but ''the poor just want to be taken care of and have their breadwinners replaced.'' The Bhopal government has so far spent $7 million out of pocket, plus an undetermined amount relating to environmental damage, according to Coale.

Union Carbide is being hit with a wave of class-action suits, ranging from $ 15 billion to $50 billion, even though the company only has total assets of about $10 billion. David Jaroslawiczcq, a New York attorney who has filed a $20 billion class-action suit on behalf of two blinded Indians and a few families who lost people to the cloud of toxic gas, says the suits will bring pressure on the chemical company to negotiate.

''Realistically, the only reason Union Carbide would have to come up with a reasonable settlement is if they have (lawsuits) staring them in the eyes . . . ,'' Mr. Jaroslawicz said. He thinks the best solution would be for Union Carbide to set up a fund, including funds from its insurance coverage, that would be administered by a United States court.

But he criticizes the company for mentioning nothing about such a fund or how much insurance coverage it has. He is also critical of the company for not contacting lawyers who have filed suits.

''Until Union Carbide says what they are going to do, it's a little hard to negotiate by yourself,'' says Jaroslawicz.

Stanley Chesley, a Cincinnati attorney who together with San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli filed the first class-action suit, for $15 billion, says he does not believe Anderson's ''quick'' solution will come about: ''According to his definition of quick solution, he wants to fund an orphanage. I have not heard him come up with any reasonable offer.''

Mr. Chesley says his experience with such mass disasters as the Agent Orange case and the M-G-M Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, Nev., leads him to believe that a negotiated settlement is not possible this time. ''I have never found (companies) able to get into negotiation settlement early on.''

Neither Union Carbide nor its New York law firm, Kelley Drye & Warren, are commenting on negotiation possibilities.

If Union Carbide chooses to avoid out-of-court talks - and Mr. Coale believes it is silent now only because it is setting its strategy - a number of legal complexities now swarming over the class-action suits will have to be resolved.

Those complexities involve such questions as: Which country's laws apply here? Is Union Carbide, which owns 50.9 percent of Union Carbide India Ltd., liable even though it appears that the plant was engineered and staffed by Indians? In which country should the trials take place? Meanwhile, Union Carbide officials say they still don't know the exact cause of the horrible accident.

Mr. Chesley says he filed suit in the US not because of the lure of fat contingency fees (which, contrary to impressions left by some news accounts, don't even apply to class-action suits) but because the ''Indian courts are not equipped to handle'' these kinds of cases.

The problem facing such lawyers as Chesley, though, is that US courts may decide not to hear the cases because it may be too costly and inconvenient for Union Carbide to bring witnesses and evidence over from India, says William Barnes, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Chesley responds, however, by saying that if justice cannot be guaranteed for victims through the Indian court system, which he maintains is the case, a US court could decide to hear the case anyway.

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