Interactive Case Study: The Dhopal Disaster
International Dimensions of Ethics Education Case Study Series
This case is a fictionalized version of the Bhopal India chemical plant accident of 1984, which raised questions about plant safety and corporate responsibility around the world. In the actual case—one of the highest-casualty industrial accidents of the 20th century—a nighttime leak of some 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas, mixed with unkown other gases, occurred at a chemical plant owned and operated by a partly-owned subsidiary of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation. At least 2000 people died and 300,000 suffered respiratory and other injuries of varying severity. The plant had been operating at a loss for some time, the parent company had begun pulling resources out, and working conditions and morale were low. Controversy still exists as to what happened and how to assign responsibility for the disaster. Victims were compensated after a series of lawsuits, but some assert that compensation was inadequate and that those responsible were never brought to justice. Our fictionalized version of the case tells the story from various perspectives and encourages students to consider how the types of dilemmas in which engineers, technicians, and managers found themselves have relevance to other, less dramatic, workplace contexts. The case illustrates, among other ethics topics, how various economic and political pressures from corporate, state, local, and international bodies, combined with inadequate oversight mechanisms, can lead to disaster.