Case Analysis

Union Carbide Corp. v. Union of India

By Shivi Khare

THIS CASE IS POPULARLY KNOWN AS THE BHOPAL GAS TRAGEDY CASE

Petitioner: Union Carbide Corporation Limited

Respondent: Union of India

BRIEF SUMMARY OF FACTS:

The Bhopal Gas Leak Tragedy that occurred at midnight of 2nd December, 1984, by the escape of deadly chemical fumes (the MIC gas) from the petitioner’s factory was a great industrial disaster and it took away the life of 2600 human in its immediate effects and left tens of thousands of innocent citizens of Bhopal physically affected in various ways.

FACTS:

The tragedy was a result of the leak of the methyl iso-cyanate (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) plant which manufactured pesticides. On the night of December 2-3, 1984, there was a leak of the MIC gas which is considered to be the most toxic chemical in industrial use. All around the city of Bhopal, people were exposed to this gas and the immediate effects of inhaling the gas were coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation. Thousands of people died immediately and lakhs of people sustained permanent injuries. It is alleged that most of the safety systems were not functioning and most of the safety valves were in poor condition around the time the incident took place. During the night of December 2-3, 1984, large amounts of water entered into the tank numbered 610 which contained about 42 tonnes of methyl iso-cyanate. At that time, workers were cleaning out pipes with water, and some claim that due to bad maintenance and leaking valves, it was possible for the water to leak into tank 610. This resulted in an exothermic reaction which caused the temperature and the pressure inside the tank to increase. Because of this urgent venting of pressure, large volumes of MIC gas were released into the atmosphere. The gases flooded the city of Bhopal, causing great panic as people woke up with a burning sensation in their lungs. Thousands of people died immediately from the effects of the gas and many were trampled in the panic. The long-term health effects of the gas include visual impairment, blindness, respiratory difficulties, immune and neurological disorders, lung injury, female reproductive difficulties and birth defects among children born to affected women.

ISSUES INVOLVED:

The validity of settlement ordered by the High Court of Madhya Pradesh.

JUDGEMENT:

The court in order to not to waste any more time in writing detailed judgment ordered Union Carbide on February 14, 1989 to pay a hefty compensation of US $470 Million before March 31, 1989. However, few months later on May 4, 1989 passed a reasoned order regarding the same.

The Supreme Court ordered Union Carbide to pay US $470 million against all the destruction that the leak of MIC gas from the industrial premise. In the reasoned order Justice Pathak said that it was the duty of the court to secure immediate relief to the victims of the MIC leak and while doing that the court did not entered into any virgin territory. Pathak j. applying the polluters pay principle decided the quantum of compensation to be US $470 Million. The court considered that the counter offers ranged between US $ 426 Million and US $ 500Million. Therefore, US $ 470 Million was calculated as the mean of the counter ranges.

However, this settlement of US $ 470 Million was way less to the promised amount by the government and also various jurists considered it to be an inappropriate compensation. After analysing the ratio, it seems that an amount less than INR 50,000 was delivered to each victim.

AFTER MATH OF THE CASE:

After the Bhopal gas tragedy case the case of M.C. Mehta V. Union of India (leakage of oleum from sulphuric acid plant) happened. When this case was brought before the Supreme Court, the Bhopal case was pending. The decision given in this case had to have an impact on the decision of the Bhopal case. The important development in this case was that there was a huge step taken by the judicial system of India. The rule of strict liability that was laid down in the case of Rylands v Fletcher was carried a step further to develop the concept of absolute liability.

The doctrine of absolute liability says that a person could be guilty even if there was no intention to commit a crime and there is no defence available against absolute liability.

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