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Union Carbide Faces Bhopal Lawsuit

Fifteen years after the world's worst industrial accident, Union Carbide again faces a legal battle regarding its fault in the deadly gas leak that killed at least 7,000 people in Bhopal, India.

The legal claims resurfaced Nov. 15 when a lawsuit was filed against the company and Warren Anderson, a former chief executive officer, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The suit claims the defendants violated international law and fundamental human rights of the victims and survivors of the Dec. 2, 1984, disaster.

Even though Union Carbide paid $470 million as part of a 1989 out-of-court settlement, plaintiffs contend that the company and Anderson are liable for fraud and civil contempt because they failed to comply with court orders in the United States and India.

"Union Carbide demonstrated a reckless and depraved indifference to human life in the design, operation and maintenance" of the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal, said Kenneth McCallion, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. That negligence, McCallion charges, led to a leak of massive amounts of methyl isocyanate, killing 4,000 within hours of the leak and others later as a result of related illnesses. More than 20,000 were injured.

Also named as plaintiff is the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, a voluntary, nongovernmental organization committed to grassroots advocacy on behalf of victims. "Tens of thousands continue to suffer from what amounts to the largest industrial disaster in history," said Satinath Sarangi, founder of the group.

The lawsuit asserts that the Indian Supreme Court, in its 1991 judgment, ruled that the criminal investigation and prosecution of Union Carbide should proceed, despite the company's $470 million settlement. According to the complaint, even though Union Carbide was a part to all of the court proceedings, it refused to comply with all efforts to obtain its appearance for trial by Bhopal District Court. In addition, efforts of Indian authorities to secure jurisdiction over the company proved futile.

Union Carbide spokesman Sean S. Clancy wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but pointed out that the company settled all personal and related claims in the settlement, which was approved and upheld by the Indian Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, though, struck down a clause that guaranteed company executives immunity from prosecution. The Bhopal court issued a warrant for the arrest of Anderson, who retired in 1986 and has not been extradited.

Although Union Carbide accepted moral responsibility for the disaster, it claimed that the plant was sabotaged by a disgruntled employee. An investigation revealed that protective equipment that could have halted the impending disaster was not in full working order.

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