Lawyer ethics is on trial in high-profile Union Carbide suit

So far, the horde of lawyers jockeying for position in the Indian gas-leak litigation is getting as much attention as the case itself. More than 100 lawyers have been bickering among themselves and soliciting clients in Bhopal, India, for coming lawsuits against the Union Carbide Corporation. And their conduct has triggered charges of opportunism, a grab for big fees, and unethical and unprofessional conduct.

Critics charge that many of these lawyers care more about fattening their own bank accounts than helping the victims injured by the leak of lethal gas at the Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal.

Some lawyers are accusing others of a type of high-level ``ambulance chasing'' for the right of representation. Various legal factions are also vying to become lead counsels in the cases, which would bring greater prestige to their firms, as well as a larger slice of the fee pie.

A few lawyers have even taken out newspaper advertisements proclaiming their expertise in mass disasters.

The overall legal approach itself has also contributed to the controversy. Some lawyers would consolidate all claims under a mammoth class-action suit. Others favor trying each case separately. A third faction would delay the legal process indefinitely to allow ample time for settlements.

In an attempt to sift through some of the controversy, United States District Court Judge John F. Keenan has asked for the formation of a three-member committee that would act as a conduit for all the Bhopal cases.

The committee, which would include Indian and American lawyers, would also attempt to set guidelines for legal representation as well as prune the number of lawyers involved.

Judge Keenan's efforts have been hailed by the citizens' group Help Abolish Legal Tyranny (HALT), which is highly critical of how US lawyers conduct themselves.

Richard Hebert, who represents HALT, says the entire situation is indicative of a ``system which does not compensate victims adequately . . . but compensates [court] delays, [lawyer] squabbles, and a let's-fight-it-out attitude.''

HALT has long fought contingency fees, which base the lawyer's fee on the financial settlement reached in the case. Critics say the fees encourage a lust for big settlements and often upstage the real interest of clients.

Mr. Hebert says that under this type of arrangement, the only real winners are lawyers.

He cites a recent Rand Corporation study that found that in some product-liability cases, 67 cents of every $1 awarded for damages went to lawyers.

Robert Havel, who represents the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), defends the contingency fee as a vehicle for allowing people to hire lawyers who couldn't otherwise afford flat-fee or hourly rates for legal help.

Mr. Havel says the news media has overplayed controversy among lawyers in the Bhopal matter.

``The main questions are really the liability of Union Carbide and [how to get] prompt compensation for the victims.''

The ATLA official also dismisses criticisms of the way lawyers solicited clients by descending upon Bhopal right after the lethal gas leak in December.

``You may not like their style,'' he says, ``but they had every right to be there -- especially if they were invited [by Indian officials].''

Dozens of US lawyers did fly to Bhopal to sign up clients immediately after the lethal pesticide leak, which resulted in about 1,700 deaths and 200,000 injuries. Some lawyers say they quickly lined up thousands of cases -- all on contingency bases.

Many of them maintain that they are just doing their jobs. And further they say it is important to keep the Bhopal tragedy in the spotlight to make certain that the public does not forget it and that the plaintiffs are properly recompensed.

But given the delays in the US legal system and the complexity of the issues involved, it remains to be seen when and whether just settlements will be reached for the hundreds of thousands of victims.

And whether justice is served may hinge at least in part on whether it is the lawyers or their clients who reap the greatest financial rewards from personal injury and other suits.

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