Judgement in Plain EnglishAdditional Compensation for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Victims
Judges: S.K. Kaul J, Sanjiv Khanna J, A.S. Oka J, Vikram Nath J, J.K. Maheshwari J
On March 14th, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered the judgement on a curative petition filed by the Union against Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). This petition sought additional compensation for the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. A 5-Judge Constitution Bench led by Justice S.K. Kaul unanimously rejected the Union’s plea.
In December 1984, a pesticide plant owned by the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, leaked 42 tonnes of a toxic chemical called methyl isocyanate. After the Federal District Court in New York dismissed the Union government’s case for reparations in February 1985, with directions to approach Indian Courts, Parliament enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act in March 1985. The Act gave the Union the power to represent all the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy legally.
In February 1989, UCC and the Union finalised a settlement, facilitated and confirmed by the Supreme Court, for $470 million. The terms of the settlement also required the Union to pay any additional compensation if the amount was not sufficient to satisfy all claims. In October 1991, the SC refused to re-open the settlement in a review petition. It also held that the Union must take care of any deficiencies being a welfare state.
In 2010, the Union filed a curative petition at the SC requesting an increase in the settlement amount, to be paid by Union Carbide. Curative petitions were introduced by the SC in 2002 as a last recourse for a litigant. The SC only grants relief in these cases when there has been a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’ arising from a past SC Order.
The case came up for hearing before the Constitution Bench led by Justice S.K. Kaul on September 20th, 2022 and on March 14th, 2023, the Bench delivered its judgement.
Previously Granted Compensation Adequately Fulfils All Claims
The Bench held that the Union had no reason to seek an increase in compensation as the original compensation settled upon in 1989 was sufficient. Further, they highlighted that there was sufficient surplus remaining even after addressing all claims.
The judgement also pointed out that the Union had admitted that there were no claims pending in the matter. In the event that any arise, the surplus left would be sufficient to take care of them.
No Legal Principle to Justify Settlement ‘Top-Up’
The SC reiterated that curative petitions could only be filed in cases of ‘gross miscarriage of justice’. For this curative petition to be valid, there must be fraud or suppression of material facts at the time of the settlement.
However, the Union had not sought the ‘top-up’ on the grounds of fraud. Their only reasons were miscalculations of the number of deaths and injuries caused during the tragedy. These grounds are not sufficient to justify additional compensation claims.
The Court clarified that it empathised with the victims of the tragedy. However, monetary compensation had to be decided in accordance with the principles of law. In this case, there was simply no legal principle to justify a ‘top-up’.
Union is in Breach of its Obligations as a Welfare State
The Bench chastised the Union for failing to fulfil its obligations in the matter. According to the 1991 SC decision, the Union was tasked with creating necessary medical insurance and addressing the issues faced by the victims. However, no such measures have been taken.
Further, Bench wrote that the Union had previously opposed the filing of petitions on the matter by private parties. It was peculiar that they had now opted for the same legal remedy. This was ‘gross negligence’ on the Union’s part.
The Original Settlement was Clearly Monitored by the SC
The interveners in the case had argued that ‘fraud had been played’ on the Court during the original settlement. Calling it the ‘midnight settlement’, the intervenors alleged that it was decided in haste.
Responding to this, the SC held the amount of compensation was granted after several days of deliberation taking into account all factors. The SC closely monitored the process. The Bench dismissed any claims of rushed deliberations.