In November of 1999, several victims of the 1984 Union Carbide gas plant disaster at Bhopal, India, filed suit against Union Carbide and its former CEO, Warren Anderson, in federal court in New York. The leak of poisonous gas from the Bhopal pesticide plant killed over 5,000 people immediately, and injured many thousands more. Union Carbide's actions violated international human rights law, environmental law, and international criminal law, and the plaintiffs sought to hold the corporation accountable for these violations. In addition to the 1984 disaster, the plaintiffs sought compensation for ongoing pollution and contamination at the Bhopal plant.
The history of the attempts to hold Union Carbide legally accountable for this disaster is long and complex. Lawsuits were filed in the U.S. as early as 1985, but they were dismissed in favor of litigating the case in Indian courts. The Indian Supreme Court finally ordered a settlement of the claims against Union Carbide in 1989 for a mere $470 million, less than $10,000 for each immediate death, let alone the later suffering and deaths of the survivors. The Indian Supreme Court also allowed criminal cases against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson to continue, but neither ever appeared after arrest warrants were issued.
The Bano case was dismissed in August 2000. The plaintiffs won a mixed victory in November 2001, however, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated parts of the case.
The appeals court allowed all of the claims of pollution and contamination not directly related to the 1984 gas plant disaster to proceed. It sent those claims back to the trial court. The court dismissed the claims relating to the 1984 disaster, however, because it found that the 1989 settlement precluded any other legal claims, despite the fact that Union Carbide and Anderson had failed to show up to answer the criminal charges against them. The court never ruled on whether Union Carbide's actions did, in fact, violate international law norms.
On March 18, 2003, the trial court dismissed the Bhopal residents' claims that Union Carbide caused massive water pollution of the local water supply. In dismissing the case, the Court did not address the question of whether Carbide caused the pollution. Instead, the Court dismissed because, in its view, the named plaintiff was injured too long ago to present a claim, the organizations that filed suit could not represent the victims, and an order that Union Carbide clean up the plant would be difficult to enforce.
On March 17, 2004, the Second Circuit reversed that decision in part. It held that while the named plaintiff’s personal injury claims were time-barred, her property damage claims were not. In addition, the Court held that Union Carbide could be ordered to clean up individual victims’ property, and could also be ordered to clean up the plant site itself, if the government, which owns the land on which the plant sits, were to intervene and request such a clean-up.
In 2005, the district court dismissed the property claim of the named plaintiff, Haseena Bi, concluding that she did not own her property. The Second Circuit affirmed in a summary order.
In November, 2004, a similar lawsuit was filed against Union Carbide on behalf of other plaintiffs who were injured by the water pollution at Bhopal. And in March, 2007 a similar suit was filed on behalf of other plaintiffs alleging property damage. The two cases are collectively known as Sahu v. Union Carbide.