A Civil Action

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Woburn, Massachusetts, a town of thirty-six thousand people, lies twelve miles north of Boston. The protracted civil action that is the subject of this engrossing narrative had its roots in the drilling of two wells in Woburn: Well G in 1964 and Well H in 1967. Both wells were slightly to the east of the Aberjona River; they were southwest of a plant owned by W. R. Grace, the multinational chemical company, and northeast of the John J. Riley Tannery, owned by the Chicago conglomerate Beatrice Foods. The water from the two new wells served mostly the homes to the wells’ southeast. By the late 1960’s, residents’ complaints about the color and the taste of their water led to the wells being shut down several times.

This was the situation in 1972, when three-year-old Jimmie Anderson, who lived just south of the wells, was diagnosed with leukemia. Over the next several years, more children fell sick with leukemia, and 184 barrels of industrial waste were found abandoned in a vacant field west of the wells in early 1979. Subsequent tests of the wells turned up heavy contamination with trichloroethylene (TCE), a powerful industrial solvent identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “probable” carcinogen. By late 1979, twelve children in the area had been diagnosed with leukemia.

As a result of these events, a Boston lawyer named Joe Mulligan was hired in 1980 to represent the families of the victims. In January of 1981, Jimmie Anderson died, and five days later the Centers for Disease Control and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a report entitled Woburn: Cancer Incidence and Environmental Hazards. The report judged the incidence of leukemia in east Woburn to be seven times greater than would ordinarily be expected. It further emphasized that although there was no proof that the contaminants in the wells would cause leukemia, their presence was a cause for suspicion.

At this point, Mulligan turned the file over to Jan Schlichtmann, a new lawyer he had hired. Schlichtmann had studied philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, and upon graduation in 1972 he had begun selling insurance. After he had sold almost a million dollars’ worth of insurance in six months, he was inspired by the Watergate hearings to enroll at Cornell University and earn a law degree. Tall and slender, a devotee of expensive clothes and a Porsche, and an abstainer from coffee, tobacco, and the chemicals in canned foods, Schlichtmann soon won a reputation for successfully pushing injury suits to the limit while surviving on a scant budget. In many ways Schlichtmann was an ideal choice to face the two Fortune 500 firms involved in the Woburn case.

By late 1982, Schlichtmann had still not filed a complaint. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a group from Washington, D.C., had become interested in the case. At Schlichtmann’s invitation, the group’s executive director, Anthony Roisman, took over as lead counsel, with Schlichtmann continuing as local counsel. On May 14, 1982, Roisman and Schlichtmann filed a long complaint alleging that subsidiaries of Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace had dumped toxic chemicals that had made their way into the plaintiffs’ drinking water.

Beatrice Foods hired Jerome Facher, chairman of the litigation department at the Boston-based law firm Hale and Dorr, to defend the company. Facher was sixty years old, was divorced, and taught trial practice at Harvard University. Parsimonious by habit, he lunched on napkin-wrapped scraps gleaned from the firm’s Friday lunch buffet.

Lead counsel for W. R. Grace was William Cheeseman, senior partner at Foley, Hoag & Eliot in Boston. Cheeseman had a powerful, logical mind and had studied mathematical physics at Harvard. Aware of his methodical ways, he nursed various studied eccentricities—diverse hats and caps, sheepskin coats, suits bought off the rack, long hair, and a Triumph sports car that he raced in supermarket parking lots.

In 1982, some 4,811 civil actions were filed in the U.S. District Court in Boston, with a lottery determining which of the court’s nine trial judges would hear each case. The Woburn case went to Judge Walter Jay Skinner. The fifty-six-year-old Skinner would walk up the fifteen flights of stairs to his office, his back bowed from surgery to correct a disk problem. He was known to be fair, curt, and efficient. He completed the trio of Harvard Law School...

(The entire section is 1822 words.)