A Civil Action

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This article is about the book. For the film, see A Civil Action (film).
A Civil Action
Author Jonathan Harr
Country United States
Language English
Genre Non-Fiction
Published August 27, 1996 (Vintage)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-679-77267-7
OCLC 35587711
LC Class KF228.A667 H37 1996
Followed by The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

A Civil Action is a 1996 work of non-fiction by Jonathan Harr about a water contamination case in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the 1980s. The book became a best-seller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

The case is Anderson v. Cryovac. The first reported decision in the case is at 96 F.R.D. 431 (denial of defendants' motion to dismiss).

A film by the same name was based on the book that was produced in 1998, starring John Travolta as Jan Schlichtmann and Robert Duvall as Jerome Facher.

Plot summary[edit]

After finding that her child is diagnosed with leukemia, Anne Anderson notices a high incidence of leukemia, a relatively rare disease, in her city. Eventually she gathers other families and seeks a lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, to consider their options.

Schlichtmann originally decides not to take the case due to both the lack of evidence and a clear defendant. Later picking up the case, Schlichtmann finds evidence suggesting trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of the town's water supply by Riley Tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods; a chemical company, W. R. Grace; and another company named Unifirst.

In the course of the lawsuit Schlichtmann gets other attorneys to assist him. He spends lavishly as he had in his prior lawsuits, but the length of the discovery process and trial stretch all of their assets to their limit.

Though Unifirst settles for a little over $1 million, the money immediately is invested in the case against Grace and Beatrice. The plaintiffs' case against Grace is far stronger for two reasons: (1) Schlichtmann has personal testimony of a former employee of Grace who had witnessed dumping, and (2) a river between Beatrice's tannery and the contaminated wells make their contribution to the contamination less plausible. The jury finds Beatrice not liable. Though Schlichtmann's firm anticipates a much higher settlement, the dire state of its finances forces it to accept settlement from W.R. Grace for $8 million.

Schlichtmann disburses the settlement to the families, excluding expenses and attorney's fees (which resulted in approx. $375,000 per family). When some families think Schlichtmann had overbilled expenses, he acquiesces and surrenders more of his fee. Schlichtmann later files for bankruptcy after losing his condo and car; he lives in his office for a time. Schlichtmann eventually practices environmental, civil, and personal injury law.

A report from the Environmental Protection Agency (which later filed its own lawsuits against the companies based on new evidence) concludes that both companies had contaminated the wells from sludge removed from the site.

In 1988, Schlichtmann attempts to reraise the case against Beatrice, but the judge dismisses the case, citing testimony from Beatrice's soil chemist. However, due to the lawsuits brought forward by the Environmental Protection Agency, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods are eventually forced to pay for the largest chemical cleanup in the history of the Northeastern United States at that time, which cost about $68 million.

People involved[edit]

Afflicted families
plaintiffs in lawsuit
  • Anderson, Anne & Charles – son Jimmy (leukemia victim)
  • Aufiero, Richard & Lauren – son Jarrod (leukemia victim)
  • Gamache, Roland (leukemia victim)
  • Kane, Kevin & Patricia – son Kevin Jr. (leukemia victim)
  • Nagle – son (leukemia victim)
  • Robbins, Donna & Carl – son Carl III (Robbie) (leukemia victim)
  • Toomey, Richard & Mary – son Patrick (leukemia victim)
  • Zona, Joan – son Michael (leukemia victim)
Attorneys for plaintiffs
  • Conway, Kevin – worked for Mulligan & Reed, with Jan Schlichtmann
  • Mulligan, Joe – originally took case, passed it to Schlichtmann who was working for M&R at the time.
  • Roisman, Anthony – rep. of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, put funds into case
  • Schlichtmann, Jan – picked up case at M&R, did most of work
  • Nesson, Charlie – Harvard Law professor who worked with them on case, gave advice regarding legal theories, etc.
Attorneys for defendants
  • Cheeseman, William: for Grace. Senior partner at Foley, Hoag, & Eliot.
  • Facher, Jerome (May, 1982): for Beatrice. Chair of litigation at Hale and Dorr. Part-time professor at Harvard Law School.
  • Jacobs, Neil: for Beatrice. Associate at Hale and Dorr.
  • Keating, Michael: for Grace
Jury members
  • Harriet Clark: church organist, late forties
  • Jean Coulsey: warehouse worker, grandmother
  • Robert Fox: self-employed house painter, around thirty
  • Linda Kaplan: insurance company clerk, young & single
  • O'Rourke, Vincent: ailing postal worker, late fifties
  • Vogel, William: jury foreman, phone company supervisor, early sixties
Medical expert witnesses
  • Byers, Dr. Vera: immunologist from CA, expert on tumor immunology
  • Cohen, Dr. Saul: cardiologist, taught at BU School of Med.
  • Coffin, Dr. John: (hired by defense) said TCE would not hurt humans.
  • Colvin, Dr. Robert: Harvard immunopathologist
  • Conibear, Shirley: specialist in occupational and environmental medicine.
  • Feldman, Dr. Robert: chairman of the Dept. of Neurology at BU School of Medicine
  • Levin, Dr. Alan: California immunologist
  • Mudge, Dr. Gilbert Horton: cardiologist, (hired by defense)
  • Paigen, Dr. Beverly: biochemist from Children's Hospital in Oakland CA
  • Turner, Dr. Bernard: experienced in issues of environmental law.
Scientific witnesses
  • Drobinski, John: Geologist, compensated by plaintiffs.
  • Pinder, George: (for plaintiff) expert in hydrology and ground water movement
Key witnesses from Grace
  • Barbas, Thomas: Grace painter.
  • Forte, Vincent: Grace plant manager.
  • Guswa, John: groundwater expert, glacial morphology
  • Kelly, Frank:
  • Love, Al: Grace receiving clerk.
  • Meola, Joe: maintenance man at Grace plant, denied dumping.
  • Pasqueriella, Robert: Grace electrician
  • Shalline, Paul: Grace worker, disposed of and discharged TCE to the drains.
Key witnesses from Beatrice
  • Braids, Olin: soil chemist
  • Mernin, Thomas: Woburn city engineer
  • Palino, Joe: Beatrice worker, lung cancer victim.
  • Riley, John: manager of the Beatrice tannery.
Other significant persons
  • Eustis, Albert: executive vice-president and general counsel, Grace
  • Quale, James: representative from Hale & Dorr (Beatrice)
  • Young, Bruce (Reverend, Woburn Trinity Episcopal Church)

See also[edit]