Untangling the legal mess left by Bhopal. Decision to try cases in India dims prospects for victims' claims

Major legal issues in the Bhopal gas disaster case have been cleared up by a New York judge. But for the victims in India, their chances for receiving adequate and quick compensation appear dimmer, Indian legal experts say. Last Monday, Judge John Keenan ruled that claims for hundreds of millions of dollars against Union Carbide Corporation should be heard in India and not the United States. The Indian government and private attorneys for Bhopal survivors had fought to have the case handled in US law courts in hopes of winning a larger settlement.

The ruling was widely seen as a victory for the troubled multinational company and its efforts to minimize financial damage from the accident.

Unofficially, some Indian officials let it be known that they were not unhappy, citing conditions in the decision that would make an Indian judgment enforceable.

``We're not totally displeased,'' said one Indian official well-versed in the case. ``This verdict is not unfair.''

However, disappointed Indian lawyers representing Bhopal victims say the judge's ruling could put compensation further out of reach.

The legal battle has dragged on since December 1984, when poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. According to estimates, between 1,700 and 2,000 people died and about 200,000 were injured. Shifting the case to India's backlogged courts could prolong it by three to ten years, jurists here estimate. Even after a judgment, lawyers say, it could take years for the government to establish needed rehabilitation programs and disburse money to victims.

``My fear is the poor victims won't see anything,'' says one lawyer representing thousands of Bhopal residents.

Whether the Bhopal case reaches the Indian courts remains to be seen. There is speculation that Union Carbide may appeal against the conditions attached to the ruling which require the US parent firm to produce evidence requested by an Indian court and to then accept its judgement.

American lawyers, who went to India to represent individual victims, also may contest the ruling. Indians say these lawyers, who invested their time and money in the hopes of winning a hefty percentage of the settlement, raised unrealistic expectations of compensation.

Pressure is expected to mount on the Indian government to settle out of court. In March, the Indian government, as the official representative of the Bhopal victims, turned down as ``inadequate'' a $350 million settlement reached between Union Carbide and private attorneys for some Bhopal residents.

``The poor people of Bhopal are agreeable to any amount,'' says Raghunath Kapur, who has worked on the case. ``. . . the government may rethink its mistake.''

Lawyers for Bhopal residents say they would ask the Indian Supreme Court to treat claims against Union Carbide as a class action although there is no provision for that in the Indian legal system. Court officials here say Bhopal survivors are unlikely to win sizeable awards in India, where the maximum awards in negligence cases range from $60,000 to $100,000, according to lawyer S.C. Dhanda.

Lawyers for Bhopal survivors worry that, during a long court battle, Union Carbide may sell valuable assets to avert financial collapse or a takeover. ``It will be difficult for an Indian court to restrain Union Carbide in America not to sell its assets,'' Mr. Dhanda says.

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