Union Carbide ponders Bhopal-suit ruling

From New Delhi to New York, lawyers are awaiting Union Carbide's next move following a federal court ruling that suits against the company stemming from the Bhopal chemical-plant disaster be heard in India, not the United States. The ruling stems from a lawsuit against the US chemical company brought by the Indian government, which is seeking compensation for an estimated 200,000 victims of a poison-gas leak at a Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984. The leak killed some 2,000 people.India argued the case in New York, saying its own courts were too crowded and incapable of handling such a large case.

In his opinion, US District Judge John F. Keenan said India's legal system is in a better position to handle the case, because a vast majority of the evidence is there and Indian courts have the greatest stake in the case. He also suggested that retaining the litigation in the US would amount to a form of ``imperialism.''

``The Union of India is a world power in 1986, and its courts have the proven capacity to mete out fair and equal justice. To deprive the Indian judiciary of this opportunity to stand tall before the world and to pass judgment on behalf of its own people would be to revive a history of subservience and subjugation from which India has emerged,'' he wrote.

But Judge Keenan also imposed conditions on the dismissal: Union Carbide must agree to accept any judgment in India and must submit to rules of pretrial discovery used in US courts. If Carbide does not follow these conditions, the US courts could still retain jurisdiction in the case.

The conditions laid down in Keenan's decision are seen as answering some of the concerns that prompted India to bring the case to the US in the first place. India's biggest concern was that its pretrial discovery laws -- which give each party in a suit access to relevant information held by the other side, prior to the trial -- are not as demanding as are those in the US.

All parties involved say they must review the judge's decision before making comments.

But in a statement, Union Carbide president Warren M. Anderson said the corporation was pleased that the judge ruled that India is the appropriate forum for the case.

He added, however, that because of Keenan's precise wording, corporation lawyers would have to review the decision. A Carbide spokesman said Tuesday he didn't know how long that review would take.

Lawyers for the Indian government are also awaiting Carbide's response to the conditions. But some attorneys for individual Bhopal victims have said plaintiffs plan to appeal the decision.

Union Carbide earlier this year offered a $350 million settlement, which several lawyers representing individual victims accepted. But India turned it down as ``woefully inadequate.'' It has asked for $615 million.

The Carbide spokesman said no further movement had occurred on that settlement offer.

Some legal observers predict that India may be more inclined to settle now, because a settlement in the Indian court may be less than one expected through the US judicial system.

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