Who represents Bhopal victims? India, not a party to the settlement, says it's too small
New York — A turf war has erupted again in the case of the 1984 poison gas leak in Bhopal, India. But some principals in the case are expressing hope that behind the rhetoric, a settlement may be closer. Late last week, Union Carbide Corporation tentatively agreed to pay $350 million into a special fund for the victims of the tragedy, which killed an estimated 2,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands.
India responded by saying it was not a party to the settlement and the offer was, in any case, ``woefully inadequate and totally unacceptable.''
Union Carbide spokesmen were more optimistic. ``It's the beginning of a process,'' says Kurt Mazurosky, a Carbide spokesman who says the corporation is ``positive'' about a settlement. But he adds that Carbide will not sign an agreement unless all suits are resolved with finality.
In the storm of responses that came after the announcement, it appeared that getting all parties to agree to the settlement would not be an easy task.
Since the tragic leak, disputes over who should represent the victims in seeking recompense have stymied a settlement. While some 150 lawyers scrambled to file claims for Bhopal victims in United States federal court, the Indian government claims to be the only legal representative.
The cases are being handled by US District Judge John F. Keenan, who consolidated the claims last year. He appointed a three-member executive committee to represent the victims, and urged the parties involved to settle the case.
The negotiations that led to the $350 million offer reportedly involved at least two of the lawyers on the executive committee, Stanley Chesley of Cincinnati and F. Lee Baily of Boston. Michael Ciresi, a Minneapolis attorney from Robins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan, the US law firm that represents the Indian government, was involved in negotiations but says India has not agreed to not endorsed any settlement.
Mr. Mazurosky indicates that since the committee was involved in the negotiating, the government of India was in effect represented. But Bruce Finzen, who also represents India, said that ``We are the only valid legal representatives of the victims.''
India has sued Union Carbide for nearly $1 billion, and observers report that the $350 million figure is far less than has been expected. Carbide says the fund will produce between $500 million and $600 million for victims over the next eight to 10 years.
One report quoted Carbide's vice-president for public affairs, Ronald Wishart, as saying that the settlement should convince the Indian government that ``that's the best they're going to get.''
The agreement must be approved by Judge Keenan in New York. Some observers questioned whether the judge would agree to an offer that was not approved by one of the key members of the committee he appointed, especially since the claims were consolidated into a class-action suit. When the judge approves a settlement in a class-action suit, it means it would cover all the victims. It appears likely that unless the Indian government joined the settlement, it would have a hard time pursuing its case further in US courts.
But Mr. Chesley questioned whether the Indian government could really claim to represent victims who had signed on with their own lawyers. He says the government can only litigate on the issue of property damage and medical expenses.
The Indian government has pursued the case in US courts in part because settlement in an Indian court would likely be much smaller than one awarded here.
An estimated 200,000 peoples were injured during the Dec. 2-3, 1984, leak at the pesticide plant in India. Since then, disbursement of aid has been slow. Last November Union Carbide gave $5 million to assist injured survivors, which has been paid out in India through the American Red Cross and Indian Red Cross. That amount would be applied to the settlement.
Keenan has been pushing both sides for a settlement, and though he has been informed of the proposal, he has not indicated when he will rule on it. A Carbide spokesman notes that the agreement still needs to be put down on paper.
What can the Indian government do short of accepting the proposed settlement? Most likely it would challenge the settlement in the federal courts here, if it were approved. It could continue to press for a settlement; though the $350 million is much higher than the $100 million Carbide had earlier offered, it is well below what the Indian government asked for.
India also could still pursue property damage from the accident. It could also sue Carbide in its own courts, but assets avaliable to satisfy claims there are limited.