US judge urges Bhopal aid. Union Carbide and victims' lawyers to draft relief plan

A federal judge Tuesday urged the Union Carbide Corporation and lawyers for victims of a Dec. 3 toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India, to submit a plan for relief to victims by May 8. United States District Court Judge John F. Keenan suggested to the two opposing sides that such a plan should include an emergency aid package of $5 million to $10 million. At least 1,700 people were killed in the accident, and about 200,000 were injured.

Union Carbide officials say they would like to settle out of court the suit filed by the Indian government and the more than 50 other cases filed separately. Judge Keenan stressed that such a plan would not be an admission of liability by the company and could be credited against any future judgment or settlement in case.

``If the reports I read are true, the situation there is still critical,'' Keenan said.

A spokesman for Union Carbide in Danbury, Conn., said the judge's proposed aid package and suggested $5 million to $10 million plan are being reviewed by the company. Company officials, he said, are pleased that the judge seems eager to speed resolution of the case. The proposal, which emphasizes negotiation over litigation, is similar to the route Carbide has ``wanted to go all along,'' he said.

At the crowded first hearing on the case, the judge also instructed lawyers who have filed cases on behalf of Bhopal victims to form a three-member executive committee to coordinate the litigation. One member would be from the US firm of Robins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan, which is representing the government of India, and two would come from the more than 50 lawyers who have filed separate cases against Union Carbide.

Other complex legal matters remain. Bud G. Holman, a lawyer representing Union Carbide, says the company still may challenge the legitimacy of trying the case in US courts.

Mr. Holman also told the judge that the US lawyers' cases should not be consolidated with the one brought by the Indian government, since the government could become a defendant in the case.

Since the December leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, the company has given nearly $1 million to the Indian government for relief efforts, in addition to medical supplies and expertise. An offer of $840,000 by the Carbide Indian subsidiary to the state in which the plant was located was turned down. The parent company's reported offer to the government was recently turned down.

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