San Francisco — Melvin Belli, the first U.S. lawyer to file suit after the chemical disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, predicts an out of court settlement of up to $1 billion before the end of the year.
“I can see a billion. It’s the worst disaster in history,’ said Belli, who has been widely criticized for rushing to India soon after a cloud of toxic gas spread over Bhopal last December, killing more than 2,500 people and injuring another 200,000.
Belli, a trial court veteran who is known as the “king of torts,’ reacted angrily to the criticism in an interview with United Press International.
“I resent that,’’ he said. “I think it’s a gross defamation. I’ve never been an ambulance chaser. I’ve always gotten there before the ambulance arrived. To say I’m an ambulance chaser isn’t fair.”
At the midyear convention of the American Trial Lawyers in Las Vegas last month, a resolution was considered to censure U.S. lawyers who have sought to bring suits in the Union Carbide accident. The resolution was voted down after a closed door debate on the issue.
In this month’s issue of The Washingtonian magazine, Vic Gold, a lawyer and journalist, attacked lawyers involved in the Bhopal case.
“Bhopal was just the latest chapter in the saga of the decline of American law from the status of a profession to that of a hustler’s trade,” Gold wrote.
Belli has filed suits in both federal and state courts on behalf of hundreds of Indian victims of the Dec. 3, 1984 disaster.
“I’m not concerned about people saying ambulance chaser because I’d rather be an ambulance chaser than ambulance filler,’”’ he said. “And I think Union Carbide is ambulance filler. If people like me didn’t take these cases on, they’d just go away, but not in the sense of compensation.”
Belli said he was invited to Bhopal by a Florida law firm that had been asked by fellow attorneys in India to seek out the best trial lawyer in the United States.
“Now we’ve got an office we’ve established over in Bhopal and New Delhi manned by some Indian lawyers,”’ he said. “We also have a doctor over there who is examining all of the plaintiffs.”
Belli contends the case should be tried in the U.S. court system, since Union Carbide is a American company. Trying the case in India would cause many problems, chiefly a delay of about 14 years because of a giant backlog in the Indian courts, he said.
A federal judge in New York has agreed to hear arguments on whether the case should be tried here. If the case does go to trial, it will likely be heard as a class action suit.
“If you go class action, then one case is tried. If you get liability, then all the rest of them are liable and you send the cases back to the local jurisdiction for damages,” Belli aid.
“So, it may very well be these Bhopal cases will be sent back to various local states to determine damages if they determine liability in New York, but there is no way that they can find there was no liability.
“I prognose that this case will be settled before Christmas,’’ he said. “There’s no chance the verdict can go for the defendant.”’
Belli condemns Union Carbide for neglecting to safeguard the plant against accidents. “That’s the reason the American businessman is what Jack Kennedy’s dad said, ‘the American businessman is a son of a bitch,’ ”’ said Belli. “He used those words and he is because he’s more concerned with profit than ethics or with the health of the people.”
“The public would seem to think that a disaster like this can happen and it will just go away and all the people will be taken care of,” he said. ‘“‘They won’t be taken care of unless they have lawyers like me to represent them.”
In Belli’s opinion, Union Carbide could afford a big settlement because it has $200 million in insurance and should be able to borrow double or even triple that amount if pressed.
“I think by Christmastime this will all be passed and there’ll be a substantial settlement for everybody,’’ Belli’ said, “I’m sure they’re going to settle out of court. They know they’re responsible…”