India brings its Bhopal claim against Union Carbide to US. Multinational corporations like Carbide must be made liable for their worldwide operations, suit says

The Indian government's suit against Union Carbide Corporation brings the case to the United States at a time when the company would rather see the case settled in India. The government filed suit Monday in Manhattan Federal District Court. The suit seeks compensation for the victims of the Dec. 3 gas leak at the company's plant in Bhopal, India.

Because of the enormity of the disaster, in which at least 1,700 were killed and 200,000 injured, the suit did not specify the amount of compensatory damages being sought. India is also seeking punitive damages ``in an amount sufficient to deter Union Carbide and any other multinational corporations from the willful, malicious, and wanton disregard of the rights and safety of the citizens of those countries in which they do business,'' states the Indian claim.

The suit asks for recovery of costs spent on emergency aid and relief. The disaster, which has been termed the worst industrial accident in history, came when a lethal gas leak developed at Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal. Union Carbide recently released an internal report that held its Indian subsidiary responsible for the accident.

The Indian government, both in its own study of the disaster released recently and in the lawsuit, claims that the parent company, located in Danbury, Conn., is liable. Using a theory it calls ``multinational enterprise liability,'' the complaint says it is difficult to pinpoint responsiblity in large multinational companies where there is potential for large-scale industrial accidents. It further states that because such corporations act as one entity accomplishing ``global purpose,'' the parent corporation must be responsible for preventing disaster -- and eventually be liable in event of disasters.

US officers of Union Carbide, claims the suit, are at fault for failing to design and build a safe plant and for allowing ``unreasonably dangerous and defective plant conditions'' to exist at the Bhopal plant.

A spokesman for Union Carbide would not comment on the lawsuit yet, but a lawyer representing the company told reporters that the suit was ``ill advised.''

The complaint was filed in the United States because it is the ``most appropriate forum for a just, speedy and equitable resolution of all claims,'' the document said. Union Carbide has been working to settle the case out of court, and out of the US court system, where it could likely face larger damage costs. The Indian government reportedly rejected a Union Carbide proposal last week.

The Indian government claims to be representing all victims in the disaster, though over 100 American lawyers have filed suits seeking billions of dollars of damage on behalf of Bhopal victims. Most have been consolidated in the federal district court in Manhattan, and a pretrial hearing is scheduled for April 16 on those actions. One spokesman for American lawyers representing Indians says the Indian government suit is encouraging because it puts the case in the US courts. In India, some of these lawyers have sought to overturn a law passed by the Indian government giving the government exclusive right to represent the victims.

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