A Civil Action Essay - Critical Essays

A Civil Action

The small town of Woburn, Massachusetts, twelve miles north of Boston, drilled two wells in 1964 and 1967, one of them southwest of a plant owned by W. R. Grace, and the other northeast of the John J. Riley Tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods. When twelve cases of childhood leukemia occurred in a nearby Woburn neighborhood between 1972 and 1979, a young Boston lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, agreed to lead a suit against the two Fortune 500 companies.

The tall, slender Schlichtmann, fond of expensive living but afraid of coffee, tobacco, and food additives, came up against two difficult courtroom antagonists: Jerome Facher, counsel for Beatrice, and William Cheeseman for Grace. Judge Walter Jay Skinner was assigned to preside in U.S. District Court in Boston. The ensuing courtroom struggle did not end until March of 1990.

The suit was divided into two phases. First, the jury had to decide if one or both defendants had, in fact, dumped chemicals, especially the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), that had gotten into the wells; and second, if they had, whether the pollutants killed the leukemia patients. The trial took all summer of 1986, with expert witnesses being examined and cross-examined. Facher was masterful, objecting to everything and disrupting the flow of Schlichtmann’s case. The jury struggled to answer the difficult questions posed to them and finally let Beatrice off but found Grace guilty in phase one. Schlichtmann’s exhausting negotiations with Grace resulted in an $8 million settlement in September of 1986.

An appeal of the ruling turned up a new document, “Hydrogeologic Investigation of the John J. Riley Tannery,” but three more years of battle availed Schlichtmann nothing. Schlichtmann eventually filed for bankruptcy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mounted a $69.4 million cleanup to be paid for by Beatrice and Grace, and Grace was indicted by the U.S. Attorney for lying to the EPA.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXII, November 3, 1995, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 10, 1995, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXXVI, October 2, 1995, p. 89.

Time. CXLVI, October 2, 1995, p. 84.

The Washington Monthly. XXVII, September, 1995, p. 50.