Union Carbide/Dow lawsuit (re Bhopal)

Bhopal disaster memorial, By: Luca Frediani, Creative Commons

In 1999, a group of victims of the Bhopal disaster, a forty ton poisonous gas spill in India, filed suit against Union Carbide in US federal court seeking compensation for the incident and for the alleged ongoing environmental contamination. The US Court rejected the case on a juridictional basis. In India, the court found Union Carbide India Ltd. and seven executives of the company guilty of criminal negligence. 


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In December 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked over forty tons of the poisonous gas methyl isocyanate into the community surrounding the plant.  Indian officials estimate that the gas leak left nearly 3000 people dead and 50,000 people permanently disabled and that 15,000 people died subsequently from exposure to the poisonous gas.  (Unofficial estimates range up to 7000-8000 initial deaths, and 15,000-20,000 subsequent deaths.)  Some of the injured people of Bhopal attempted to litigate claims against Union Carbide (part of Dow Chemical since 2001) in the US; these US lawsuits were dismissed in 1986 in favour of litigating the claims through the Indian legal system. 

In 1989 the Indian Supreme Court approved a settlement of the civil claims against Union Carbide for $470 million.  Until recently approximately $330 million of the settlement amount had yet to be disbursed to the Bhopal victims and their survivors.  In July of 2004, the Indian Supreme Court directed that the balance of the settlement fund be disbursed among all of the Bhopal claimants. In 2010, the victims and the government filed a "curative petition" with the Supreme Court of India asking to re-open the settlement, due to evidence of the very significantly greater number of victims and severity of harms than was contemplated at the time of the original settlement.

In 1999, a group of victims of the Bhopal disaster filed suit against Union Carbide in US federal court seeking compensation for the 1984 incident as well as for the alleged ongoing environmental contamination at and around the Bhopal plant site.  After a number of appeals, the plaintiffs’ US claims for compensation for injuries directly related to the 1984 incident were dismissed because the court found that these claims were barred by the 1989 Union Carbide settlement in India.  However, the court allowed claims to go forward regarding property damage due to the environmental contamination at the Bhopal plant site and surrounding areas.  In June 2012 the district court dismissed the case against Union Carbide.  The plaintiffs appealed, and the appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling in June 2013. On 30 July 2014, the US District Court of the Southern District of New York ruled that Union carbide could not be sued for the on-going contamination from the plant, despite the plaintiffs' lawyers providing evidence that an Union Carbide employee managed its construction.  The plaintiffs appealed in November 2014, and claim that they have provided new evidence that show Union Carbide's involvement.  On 24 May 2016, a US court ruled that a lawsuit against Union Carbide filed by local communities may not proceed despite strong evidence the company's chemical plant continues to cause water pollution in Bhopal, India.  In July 2016, the victims asked the court to reconsider its 24 May decision.  In August 2016, the US court of appeals rejected their appeal for a rehearing, allowing stand the lower court decision ruling that UCC was not liable to stand.

In addition to the US litigation, a criminal lawsuit against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson, its former CEO, has been ongoing in the Indian legal system since 1989.  In June 2010 a court in India handed down a verdict in the case.  It found Union Carbide India Ltd. and seven executives of the company guilty of criminal negligence.  The company was required to pay a fine of 500,000 rupees ($10,870) and the individuals were each sentenced to two years in prison and fined 100,000 rupees ($2175) a piece.  On 2 August 2010, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking a harsher punishment for the accused in this case.  This petition sought to reinstate charges of culpable homicide against the accused; a September 1996 order had reduced the charges from culpable homicide to criminal negligence.  In May 2011, the Supreme Court rejected this petition and declined to re-open the case to reinstate the harsher charges.

- "Bhopal gas tragedy victims call for immediate steps to check groundwater contamination", International Business Times, 14 June 2018
- "U.S. court rules in favour of Union Carbide", Hindu, 31 Jul 2014
- "Bhopal gas tragedy: US court rejects case against Union Carbide", Business Standard, 1 Jul 2013
- "Union Carbide wins dismissal of suit over Bhopal plant", Patricia Hurtado & Bob Van Voris, Bloomberg Businessweek, 28 Jun 2012  
- "India's Supreme Court rejects harsher Bhopal charges", BBC News, 11 May 2011
- "CBI files curative petition in Bhopal gas tragedy case", J. Venkatesan, Hindu, 3 Aug 2010
- "Indian court convicts 7 in Bhopal gas disaster", Prakash Hatvalne, Seattle Times, 7 Jun 2010
- “Indian Judge Orders Dow to Explain Shielding of Subsidiary in Bhopal Criminal Case”, Boston Common Asset Management [socially responsible investment firm], 12 Jan 2005

- Union Carbide: Union Carbide Bhopal Information Center

- EarthRights International: "Despite evidence that Union Carbide directly oversaw construction of its notorious plant in Bhopal, India, U.S. court denies justice to victims of pollution" 1 Aug 2014
- Amnesty International: [PDF] “Clouds of Injustice: Bhopal Disaster 20 Years On”, 29 Nov 2004
- “Bhopal Gas Tragedy Lives On, 20 Years Later”, Scott Baldauf, Christian Science Monitor, 04 May 2004
- Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR): Bhopal Amicus, Synopsis [CCR filed amicus brief on behalf of plaintiffs in the US case]
- Earthrights International: Bano v. Union Carbide [synopsis of US lawsuit filed in 1999; includes links to certain court decisions]
- International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal: Document Library [contains links to certain US and Indian legal documents]

- [PDF] State of Madhya Pradesh through CBI vs. Warren Anderson, et al. - Judgment, Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate Bhopal, 7 June 2010

- [PDF] Jagarnath Sahu v. Union Carbide Corporation, US District Court Southern District of New York, 30 Jun 2014

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14 June 2018

India: Communities affected by Bhopal gas disaster urge authorities to act on continuing groundwater contamination

Author: IBT News Desk, International Business Times (India)

"Bhopal gas tragedy victims call for immediate steps to check groundwater contamination", 14 June 2018

The Bhopal gas tragedy continues to make lives of people living in the affected areas miserable even after more than three decades. Now, the groundwater is becoming increasingly dangerous to consume...Organisations set up by survivors of the tragedy have lamented the lackadaisical attitude of the Centre as well as the successive state governments towards the contamination of the groundwater in the city.  The leaders of...organisations have said that even the Supreme Court has acknowledged the fact that the groundwater poisoning is spreading and now 20 more communities are on the verge of being added to the list which already has 22 communities which have to make do with poisoned groundwater.  Supreme Court has ordered...to collect groundwater samples from 20 more communities.  The team is expected to visit the affected parts of the city on Friday, June 15.  The apex court has also directed the Municipal Corporation to supply treated drinking water to five of the 20 communities which lack this facility.  Talking to The Pioneer, Rashida Bee, president, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh said: "Are the central and state governments waiting for the poisons to spread all over the city before they begin to act? Going by the orders of the Supreme Court, the number of poisoned communities has trebled in the last 14 years. Yet the governments have not taken a tiny step to stop the spread of chemicals that damage the brain, lungs, kidneys and liver and cause cancers and birth defects."...

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20 September 2017

India: State High Court stays criminal proceedings against ex-top cop for aiding Warren Anderson flee

Author: Live Law News Network (India)

"Bhopal Tragedy: MP HC Stays Criminal Proceedings Against Ex-DGP For Aiding Warren Anderson Flee India", 21 Sep 2017

The Madhya Pradesh High Court has stayed the proceedings of criminal complaint pending against former Director General of Police…at a CJM court in Bhopal, accusing him and former district collector of releasing main accused Warren Anderson Union Carbide Corporation, and helping him to flee India by misusing their power and position, thus, violating the law of land. Abdul Jabbar, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangthan, and Shahnawaz Khan had filed a criminal complaint case…against Swaraj Puri and Moti Singh accusing them of releasing Warren Anderson…The petitioner took the plea that the matter pertains to an incident that took place 33 years ago and no one ever raised any finger on the act or conduct of the petitioner as superintendent of police.

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5 December 2016

Will merger deal allow Dow to evade their toxic liabilities in Bhopal?

Author: Clare Speak, Equal Times (Belgium)

...For more than three decades, campaigners have been calling for Dow Chemical, the US-based company held liable for the disaster, to accept responsibility, compensate victims properly, and to pay for the clean-up of the still-contaminated area...

...UCC has not answered the criminal charges relating to the disaster, and they remain outstanding. Dow has been summoned by the Indian courts on four separate occasions to explain UCC’s non-appearance, but Dow has so far failed to attend...

...A planned merger deal between corporate giants Dow and Dupont is set to add a “complicated new layer” to the corporate structure of UCC, making it harder still for victims to get justice.

According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, the merger would potentially allow both companies to avoid their legal obligations to the Bhopal victims, as well as to thousands of other people around the world who have been poisoned by toxic chemical manufacturing processes...

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4 August 2016

Union Carbide Corp. Not Liable for Property Damage From 1984 Bhopal Leak

Author: Daniel M. Krainin and Graham C. Zorn, Beveridge & Diamond PC at Lexology

In the most recent case stemming from the 1984 chemical plant leak in Bhopal, India, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit further clarified the circumstances in which an entity other than the owner or operator of a site may be liable at common law for a chemical release at that site...Plaintiffs claimed property damage from leaks from a waste storage facility at the Union Carbide India Limited (“UCIL”) plant in Bhopal, and sued Union Carbide Corporation (“UCC”), a majority stockholder in UCIL, for nuisance, trespass, strict liability, and negligence...The Second Circuit held that proving UCC’s conduct was a “substantial factor” contributing to an injury would require showing UCC had the requisite “knowledge” of the risk and “substantial certainty” of ultimate injury. The Court...found that “no reasonable juror could find that UCC participated in the creation of the injury on any theory of liability.”

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11 July 2016

Victims of 1984 Bhopal gas disaster in India ask US court to reconsider decision rejecting Union Carbide’s liability for clean-up

Author: Sunita Sohrabji, Indian West

"Bhopal Victims Launch Final Try to Get Union Carbide to Clean Up Mess", 6 Jul 2016

Thousands of victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster petitioned the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals June 21 to reconsider its decision in May, which found that the Union Carbide Corporation was not responsible for cleaning up the mess caused by the world’s worst accident...

...Owners and occupants of land near the Bhopal plant are suing UCC [Union Carbide Corporation] – which was bought by Dow Chemical in 2001 – for causing injuries resulting from hazardous contaminants attributed to the plant’s inadequate waste management system. Residents living near the now-shuttered site have suffered from a variety of illnesses from drinking contaminated water, and a huge number of babies have been born with birth defects. EarthRights and the plaintiffs want UCC to clean up the toxic wastes from the site; UCC has said it is not responsible...

Key to the plaintiffs’ case is the testimony of plant manager John Couvaras, who has said he was an employee of UCC at the site at the time of the disaster. If Couvaras was in fact an employee of Union Carbide, UCC would be responsible for his actions or non-actions...

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24 May 2016

Court Rules that Union Carbide Can't Be Sued for Ongoing Pollution in Bhopal

Author: Rick Herz, Earthrights

Today, a New York federal appeals court found that Union Carbide Corp. (UCC) could not be sued for ongoing pollution of drinking water from the notorious chemical plant in Bhopal, India...On December 2, 1984, poisonous gas from the Bhopal plant enveloped nearby communities, killing thousands. The water pollution here is unrelated to the Gas Disaster, but has been leaching from the same plant ever since it was shut down afterward. Marco Simons, ERI’s General Counsel, added, “These families have been living with Union Carbide’s pollution for decades. This lawsuit is only one of the many efforts, in India and the United States, to obtain justice and a cleanup for the people of Bhopal, and we remain committed to that work." Plaintiffs plan to file a petition for rehearing.

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24 May 2016

SUMMARY ORDER: 14-3087-cv Sahu v. Union Carbide Corp.

Author: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Download the full document here

5 September 2015

Bhopal gas tragedy victims press on with appeal arguments in US

Author: Narayan Lakshman, The Hindu

…[L]awyers [for the victims of the 1984 Bhopal poison gas disaster] this week filed arguments with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that the company…was continuing to foul local wells from its plant located in the area…[T]he appeal come[s] more than a year after a New York federal district court found that [Union Carbide Company (UCC)] could not be sued in the Sahu II case, despite “compelling evidence that UCC caused the harm”, including arguments…that a UCC employee, Lucas John Couvaras, managed the construction of the plant…In this week’s developments, the plaintiffs said that they had provided more evidence demonstrating UCC’s responsibility…ERI counsel Marco Simons said that…the plaintiffs were “quite hopeful” about the outcome after the “hearing went well and the judges seemed pretty engaged in the case,” particularly expressing concern that the judge [in the New York court] did not adequately address the fact that the construction manager for the plant said that he worked for UCC…”

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13 April 2015

Indian Govt. should have done more to secure extradition of former Union Carbide CEO from USA over Bhopal disaster, says journalist

Author: Narayan Lakshman, Hindu (India)

“Did India take US snub on Bhopal case lying down?” 4 Apr 2015

India may not have been batting on the front foot for justice for its citizens despite being snubbed on its two extradition requests to the U.S. for Warren Anderson, the late and former CEO of Union Carbide Company, allegedly responsible for the worst industrial accident in modern India…“Government of India’s request for extradition of Mr. Warren Anderson has not been agreed to by the U.S. side till date,” the Indian Embassy [in the USA] said…Arguing that the Bhopal gas case matter was still “sub-judice,” the Embassy declined to provide any documentation of its communications with the U.S. authorities...If the tables were turned and a U.S. corporate criminal had fled to India, Washington would have used all its powers to push the Indian government — an approach New Delhi did not follow...[T]he Bhopal cases filed...in the U.S. have also run into dead ends, particularly after a New York judge declined, in July 2014, to allow the case brought by victims of the tragedy to proceed and ruled in favour of Union Carbide...

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Author: Emmanuel Derville, Le Figaro (France)

En cette nuit du 2 décembre 1984… un employé de l'usine de pesticides du groupe américain Union Carbide s'aperçoit que la pression dans le réservoir 610 est trop élevée. Il contient de l'isocyanate de méthyle, un liquide toxique…Trop tard. Quarante tonnes de gaz blanchâtre se répandent dans l'air…Selon l'ONG Sambhavna, qui gère une clinique à Bhopal, l'accident a tué entre 8.000 et 10.000 personnes dans les 72 premières heures. Des dizaines de milliers au total. Trente ans plus tard, l'usine reste une bombe à retardement…[U]n bassin aménagé par Union Carbide dans les années 1970…[où des] tonnes de déchets chimiques y sont entreposées…fuit. L'eau toxique s'infiltre dans la nappe phréatique…En 1989, la Cour suprême condamne Union Carbide à 470 millions de dollars d'amende…[L]es autorités déposent une requête devant la justice indienne en 2010. Elles demandent 1,2 milliard de dollars. Mais la procédure traîne, engluée dans les recours déposés par Dow Chemical, propriétaire de Union Carbide depuis 2001…

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