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.

Summary

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

Introduction

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, along with the executive director of a legal group in Washington, D.C., files a complaint in 1982 against subsidiary companies of Beatrice and Grace. 

Beatrice Foods hires a lawyer named Jerome Facher to defend them in the case, and W. R. Grace hires William Cheeseman. The judge for the case is Walter Jay Skinner. A third company, Unifirst, is discovered to have been responsible for a spill of TCE in Woburn; unlike Beatrice and Grace, this company settles quickly for a fine of $1,050,000. 

Schlichtmann easily proves that W. R. Grace had dumped TCE on its property in Woburn but struggles to prove Beatrice’s guilt. Schlichtmann’s expenses quickly grow, and his firm falls into financial distress. Schlichtmann plans to begin the trial by interviewing parents of the leukemia victims, but Facher, knowing that these emotional testimonies would influence the jury, requests that the judge divide the trial into phases. The first phase would determine if the two companies were responsible for the chemicals in the wells, and the second phase would determine if these chemicals were responsible for the deaths of Woburn residents. Judge Skinner agrees to this division of the trial, much to Schlichtmann’s dismay. 

After a long and grueling trial, the jury finds Beatrice Foods not liable for the chemical contamination, and Schlichtmann and his team are forced to settle for a mere $8 million from W. R. Grace. The battle does not end after the jury’s verdict, however: Schlichtmann attempts to appeal the ruling that declared Beatrice innocent but is ultimately unsuccessful. Deeply in debt from the expenses of the case, Schlichtmann files for bankruptcy. A few years later, the Environmental Protection Agency investigates and finds that Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace are both responsible for the contamination in Woburn. Beatrice and Grace, along with three other companies, are forced to pay for the cost of a cleanup project amounting to about $69 million.

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