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Lawyers' Bhopal Suit 'Meant to Shock' : Attorneys Say Criticism of $20-Billion Action Surprised Them

January 20, 1985|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

At work inside a gold-mirrored office building in Santa Monica's Business Park, Jay D. Gould and Federico C. Sayre didn't look much like high-powered attorneys. Gould appeared in tan cowboy boots and a loosely knotted tie one workday, while Sayre, his feet on the coffee table, casually talked about the time that "Hef" hosted them at the Playboy mansion.

The two lawyers, however, are determined not to be taken lightly, especially after filing a $20-billion lawsuit against Union Carbide Corp. on behalf of victims of the deadly poisonous gas leak in Bhopal, India.

The claim, filed shortly after the tragedy occurred, brought Gould and Sayre international attention. It also led to a condemnation from the Board of Governors of the California Trial Lawyers Assn., which criticized attorneys it said had filed "overstated claims" in the Bhopal disaster.

Asked how the two arrived at the $20-billion figure (another attorney recently filed a $50-billion class-action lawsuit against Union Carbide), Gould symbolically reached into thin air.

"You pick a figure intentionally meant to shock the conscience," Gould said. "It's meant to send a message that this should not be considered lightly. We recognize that the figure is more than the entire company is worth. That says that we're saying we're serious."

Gould said that they were summoned to Bhopal by two Indian colleagues seeking someone to represent their clients in an American court, where damages for accidental deaths or injuries generally are higher.

Gould said he was surprised by the condemnation from the Trial Lawyers Assn. Despite the astronomical size of their claim against Union Carbide, Gould and Sayre have tried to distance themselves from other attorneys who filed multibillion-dollar lawsuits in connection with the Dec. 3 gas leak that killed at least 2,500 people and injured tens of thousands of others.

Gould and Sayre criticized colleagues who they said had gone to India only to sign up clients. In contrast, Sayre claimed, he and Gould went to Bhopal to establish the responsibilities of multinational corporations in overseas operations. Later, they publicly offered to forgo their usual 30% contingency fee in favor of a payment to be determined by the Indian government or the courts.

"We're not saying that we should receive no fee," Sayre said. "But we are saying that it should be consistent with the kind of work we do, and not some kind of windfall because a terrible tragedy has befallen us."

"Yes, Fred and I would like to make a lot of money," Gould added. "Everybody would. But not on this particular case."

Whether the critics will buy Gould's and Sayre's defense is unknown. But the two can point to a history of balancing highly profitable personal injury claims with work on behalf of farm workers, illegal aliens and other disadvantaged clients.

Most recently, Sayre worked free of charge for illegal aliens fighting to receive unemployment insurance from the California Employment Development Department. The two also are active in Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington-based public-interest firm, and both make frequent references to their commitment to volunteer legal aid and unions.

Still, Gould, 41, and Sayre, 37, are involved in a number of multimillion-dollar product-liability and personal-injury cases.

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The firm represents several women who have filed complaints over intrauterine contraceptive devices. They claim to represent about 150 people involved in asbestos litigation. Each has filed claims arising from major disasters. Other personal-injury cases have taken the two to Japan, Germany and Central America. They also operate a company dedicated to fostering trade with the People's Republic of China.

"We've been very fortunate as lawyers," Gould said, "in that we've been chosen to represent clients all over the United States. As a result of that, we have cases involving machinery and technology all over the world. So it's an absolute rarity that we do something that doesn't tie into our law practice."

Gould, a New York City native, and Sayre, originally from Arizona, met at a trial lawyers convention in 1981. Gould was involved with a private firm. Sayre, the personal attorney for United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez, was a partner in Melvin Belli's Los Angeles office. The two opened Gould and Sayre in March of 1982. Today the firm employs nine lawyers and has another office in New York.

Gould and Sayre, who are both single, spend much of their time on the road. The two were about to embark on a business trip to China when the call about the Bhopal tragedy came.

Gould and Sayre stayed in India for three days. Because of the nature of the accident, said Sayre, they suggested that a permanent fund be established for the victims. Under the proposal, the lawyers would receive a wage commensurate with the hours and expenses incurred in reaching a settlement.

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