In the year after the tragic poison gas leak in Bhopal, India, the legal battles to compensate the victims are still dragging on in courtrooms both in the United States and in India. Immediately after the methyl-isocyanate leak Dec. 3, 1984, which killed more than 2,000 people and left 200,000 injured, teams of lawyers -- many American -- descended on the city to sign up clients seeking compensation from the Union Carbide Corporation.
Over 120 cases have been filed in US courts, including one suit by the Indian government, seeking more than $100 billion in damages. Nearly 4,000 lawsuits have been filed in India.
Some legal experts say that with this kind of wrangling, the battle for compensation could go on for years.
In April, US District Judge John F. Keenan in New York urged Union Carbide and lawyers to put together an immediate emergency aid package for the victims in Bhopal. After a number of disputes between the company and Indian government officials, a plan was approved in late November to disburse $5 million through the American and Indian Red Cross.
In New York, lawyers for Union Carbide are arguing that the case belongs in the Indian courts, and not in the US. The Indian government has argued that its court system is inadequate to handle the suits. Its lawyers also claim that the Danbury, Conn., parent company is liable through a legal theory called ``multinational-enterprise liability.''
The plant in Bhopal is owned by Union Carbide India Ltd., of which Union Carbide owns just over 50 percent and the rest is owned by Indian investors. The multinational-enterprise theory hold that the parent firm is responsible for preventing disasters -- and liable when they occur -- since such corporations act as one entity with ``global purpose.'' The Bhopal plant was also designed by Union Carbide officials from Danbury.
Oral arguments on the question of whether the cases should be tried in the US are scheduled for Jan. 3. Carbide has said that if the lawsuits are heard in New York, it would insist that the 103,000 plaintiffs come to the US for the trial.
Legal observers also note that although Union Carbide has said that it accepts moral responsibility for the tragedy, company officials and lawyers have also argued the possibility of sabotage. Plaintiffs lawyers call this theory absurd and a diversionary tactic.
Carbide officials, who would like to settle out of court, say they are willing to negotiate at anytime. The government of India rejected a $200,000 million settlement earlier this year.
In the meantime, the Bhopal victims complain that the government in India has been unable to provide effective relief, treatment in the way of health care, and loss of income.