American author Jonathan Harr was catapulted into literary fame because of his compelling non-fiction work, A Civil Action. Chronicling the deliberate/negligent toxic contamination of the Woburn, Massachusetts water system during the 1970’s and 80’s, A Civil Action was a 1996 number one best seller as well as a recipient of the National Book Critics Award. Harr invested seven and a half years of intense research/writing and he strictly relied on official court records and personal interviews to reconstruct events.
The fruit of his labors resulted in a searing depiction of a true and tragic event of which the Cleveland Plain Dealer described as “the legal thriller of the decade (front cover).” Spanning 501 pages, the book contains fourteen chapters (with a concluding Sources and Acknowledgments section. The book went on to become an acclaimed 1998 film directed by Steven Zaillian and staring John Travolta along with Robert Duvall (Academy Award Nomination/Best Supporting Actor).
Discovering Woburn children, inclusive of her own child, have been diagnosed with leukemia, resident Ann Anderson and other affected families hire personal injury/toxic tort lawyer Jan Schlichtmann to investigate and file a class action lawsuit. Their allegations were further substantiated and fueled by a five year mortality study conducted by two University of Massachusetts professors chronicling cancer deaths in Woburn which had increased by 17% (Ryan, 1979).
Filed May 14, 1982, Anderson vs. Cryovac (Anne Anderson et al. v. Cryovac Inc. W.R. Grace Inc., John J. Riley Company Inc., Beatrice Inc. – C.A. No. 82-1672-S – D. Mass) was milestone civil action suit. Initially Schlichtmann accepts for prestige and financial success purposes. Evidence surfaces, however, alleging Riley Tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods, W.R. Grace (a chemical company) and Unifirst deliberately contaminated the town’s water supply with the industrial solvent/chlorinated hydrocarbon TCE (trichloroethylene).
TCE is a chemical compound, a chlorinated hydrocarbon. A sweet smelling clear liquid, TCE is non-flammable. It is used in organic/edible materials such as vegetable oils, etc. and for industrial purposes (dry cleaning solvents, metal parts degreaser, rocket cleaner, etc.).
Excessive consumption is carcinogenic in animals and humans resulting in central nervous systems depression as well as high proclivity to leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The discovery of this heinous evidence marks a turning point for Schlictmann personally as well as the case. Sparring against Beatrice Foods’ condescending defense attorney – Jerome Facher, sensitizes Schlichtmann.
Committed to helping the families with a successful win, Schlichtmann invests everything he has to the point of putting his firm at financial risk. He assembles a team of expert lawyers to assist thereby exhausting his resources and expenses. Finally succumbing to such financial detriment to his firm, Schlichtmann is forced to accept an $ 8 million settlement from W.R. Grace with the case being dropped against Beatrice due to less plausibility.
The settlement is divided among the families, excluding attorney fees and expenditures. Schlicht-mann goes as far as to pay more fees to families who felt he had overcharged them. He eventually files for bankruptcy having lost his home, car with his office becoming his temporary home.
A Civil Action exemplifies the colossal nature and success of civil action suits in terms of counteracting heinous corporate greed, gross negligence and capriciousness. The book illustrates the detriments of such behavior in the corporate sector and issues concerning civil trials (people vs. business/ institutions), procedures, etc.
Diminishing the notion that the victims are rendered powerless, such landmark cases illustrate where there is a will – there is a way. Most importantly, it asserts the difference one person can make when committed to doing right and seeking justice. For this reason alone, A Civil Action will leave its indelible mark.
Harr, Jonathan. A Civil Action. Vintage Books, 1996.
Ryan, Charles C. “Deaths from Cancer Increase in Woburn.” The Daily Times – Woburn Edition. http://www.northshoreonline.com/woburn/deaths.htm (December 10, 1979).