A Civil Action Summary

Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action tells the story of a legal case concerning several companies that contaminated the water supply in Woburn, MA, causing numerous cases of leukemia.

  • In 1966, children in Woburn, MA, begin to contract leukemia at unusually high rates. Anne Anderson, the mother of a victim, suspects that the local water supply has been contaminated.
  • In 1979, it is discovered that TCE and other carcinogens have been dumped near Woburn. The residents take action, and a legal team led by Jan Schlichtmann launches a decade-long case against Beatrice and W. R. Grace, two companies with local factories.


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Last Updated on October 28, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833


Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action is based on the true story of the 1986 court case Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., and the appeals that followed it. The book was published in 1995 and adapted into a movie in 1998. It follows the residents of Woburn, Massachusetts, and their lawyers as they accuse two companies—Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace—of contaminating the town’s water and attempt to bring justice to the children of Woburn who have died from leukemia as a result of this contamination. 

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Plot Summary 

In January of 1972, in the town of Woburn, Massachusetts, a woman named Anne Anderson learns that her son, Jimmy, has leukemia. This is a rare disease: it occurs “in fewer than four out of one hundred thousand children each year.” The fact that two other children in Anne’s town develop leukemia around the same time as Jimmy therefore makes Anne suspicious. Jimmy’s doctor and others in the town write this off as coincidence—but over the next several years, more and more cases of leukemia arise in Woburn. 

Anne Anderson and other residents of Woburn had noticed a few years prior that the water in their town was odd: it had an unpleasant odor and taste, and it corroded pipes and faucets to the point that they leaked and had to be replaced. Residents discovered that the cause of their poor water quality was that the town had begun to receive water from a new well called Well G, which was on the banks of the Aberjona River, in 1964. Well H was soon established only a few hundred feet from Well G to provide more water for the town. 

After bacterial contamination was discovered in the Woburn water, state health authorities insisted that it undergo chlorination. This process did not seem to improve water quality, however: residents complained about the taste and color of the chlorinated water as well. Over the years, the wells are closed and reopened many times, in a seemingly endless cycle. Residents complain, and the wells are closed; authorities reassure residents that the water is safe, and they are reopened. 

In 1979, nearly two hundred barrels of industrial waste are discovered not far from Wells G and H. An environmental inspector has the water tested, and the state’s environmental department calls for the immediate closure of the wells; the water contains extremely high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), which is believed to be a carcinogen. That same year, a construction crew discovers a “half-buried lagoon” in Woburn that is contaminated with arsenic and additional carcinogens, as well as pits filled with rotting “slaughterhouse wastes.” 

Residents’ concerns and suspicions naturally grow. Several, including Anne Anderson, begin to take legal action. Joe Mulligan, a lawyer from Boston, is hired for the Woburn case, but he passes it off to his new employee, lawyer Jan Schlichtmann.  A tannery owned by Beatrice Foods and a chemical plant owned by W. R. Grace are suspected to have contributed to the chemicals in the water of Woburn. Schlichtmann,...

(The entire section contains 833 words.)

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