A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

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Blindman's Bluff

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In September, Skinner approves the eight-million-dollar settlement, but Keating wants a motion for a new trial to remove the onus from Grace. Schlichtmann begrudgingly agrees. He starts to believe there was never going to be a phase two—that the judge was against them all along.

That afternoon, Schlichtmann goes to Woburn and celebrates with the families, but not everyone is happy. Revered Young feels that justice has not been served and that Schlichtmann has botched the case. The unease continues when Schlichtmann explains the financial dispersal. Some families are upset that Schlichtmann is getting more than them. Anne and Zona ask him about the $2.6 million in fees. Schlichtmann suggests they hire an accountant to go through the invoices, and he would honor whatever decision the accountant made. The exploration shows that Schlichtmann footed far more than $2.6 million. When the debts are settled, Schlichtmann is left with thirty thousand dollars.

Before leaving for Hawaii, Schlichtmann tells the Woburn families he will appeal the Beatrice verdict. While he’s gone, the EPA releases a report that shows both Grace and Beatrice contaminated the Aberjona aquifer, and that Beatrice was “the largest contributor to the pollution of the wells.” Nesson offers to write the appeal himself while Schlichtmann is gone.

Nesson asks Schlichtmann to look over the appeal. Schlichtmann is impressed and takes a few days filling in the missing details. Reopening the case quickly throws Schlichtmann back into his obsessive ways. He ignores the fact that the firm is slowly slipping back into debt from back taxes. On June 7th, his prayers are answered when he receives a call from Jacobs offering a two-hundred-thousand-dollar settlement. Schlichtmann declines, calling himself “a glutton for punishment.”

Schlichtmann sends Gordon to the EPA office in hopes of finding something new. He needs to prove that Riley was responsible for and cognizant of Beatrice’s release of TCE into the Woburn waterway. Gordon thinks he has reached a dead end until he finds a new file in the project director’s office.

Gordon brings this “Yankee” file to Schlichtmann. It contains a 60-page report titled “Hydrogeologic Investigation of the John J. Riley Tanning Company.” It was completed three years before the trial’s start date and was commissioned by Riley himself. The findings match Pinder’s testimony, and the samples match the material Professor Drobinski found. If Schlichtmann can prove this evidence was withheld, he can launch a new trial.

Schlichtmann, Nesson, and Facher are back in court. Schlichtmann takes the group through the Yankee document and explains how the information would have transformed his original case. Skinner asks Facher if he has ever seen the report in question. Facher admits he saw it briefly before a deposition from Riley’s personal lawyer, Mary Ryan. Nesson pushes Skinner on this point, and Skinner begins to yell. He refuses to hear more testimony but doesn’t make a ruling.

By the new year, Schlichtmann is homeless and moves into the office. The firm borrows more money from Uncle Pete and still owes money to the IRS.

Nine weeks later, Skinner decides the evidence wouldn’t have affected the case, but Schlichtmann did correctly ask for the document. However, Skinner doesn’t feel that any intentional or malicious behavior has ensued. Skinner blames Schlichtmann for pushing the case to trial when Facher asked for more time.

Nesson decides to argue at the Court of Appeals. Schlichtmann feels he does well, but significant time passes without a ruling. In December, the Appeals Court states that Judge Skinner “abused his discretion,” and he is rebuked for doing so. However, they take an “unusual” step and send the case...

(This entire section contains 1341 words.)

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back to Skinner for “aggressive inquiry.” Schlichtmann feels stuck. The EPA agrees with his evidence, and the US Geological survey has since issued reports saying the fifteen acres in question contaminated the well. But none of the facts seem to matter to any judge.

Schlichtmann takes Conway to Woburn to get to the bottom of the Yankee file. They go see Lawrence “Butch” Knox, a veteran well driller named in the report. At the tannery, he has noticed other machinery on the edge of the property and has seen Beatrice workers moving “soil.” He saw the men take the supposed soil off the property. He agrees to sign an affidavit.

Schlichtmann meets with former Beatrice maintenance worker William Marcus. He is dying of lymphoma and knows about the Yankee document. However, he doesn’t know about the waste removal. He connects Schlichtmann with James Granger, former plant engineer. Granger remembers the digging and knows about the “soil” removal. Schlichtmann brings a notary public to Granager’s home and leaves with a signed affidavit stating that Riley asked him to secretly remove the waste.

Gordon calls the EPA to relay this information, and one of the project managers, David Delaney, says he saw the removal and made note of it. He offers the notes to Gordon. Now, Schlichtmann feels he can prove the existence of toxic Sample Z. After a few motion attempts, Skinner allows for full discovery with depositions but does not accept affidavits.

Schlichtmann calls Knox and begs him to testify, but he refuses. Schlichtmann has no choice but to subpoena Knox. They drive up to Knox’s work, and Schlichtmann confronts him. After a tense conversation, Schlichtmann cries, and Knox agrees to testify.

Over the next two months, Skinner hears the testimony of twenty-six witnesses and reads over two hundred pieces of evidence, but the EPA won’t let Delaney take the stand. Schlichtmann uses his report as evidence instead.

A new member of Facher’s team, James Quarles, asks to meet with Schlichtmann. He wants to settle but says he can’t offer anything over fifty thousand dollars, because such a sum would be an admission of guilt. Schlichtmann rejects it. 

James Granger is the next witness called to the stand, and surprisingly he admits that he saw material that could be Sample Z. He also admits that Riley told him to remove it. 

On the stand, Riley still says he knows nothing, but he makes a mistake by admitting to taking tannery documents home. Some of the documents were chemical formulas dating back years. Facher gets nervous and objects, but Skinner denies it. Riley says he gave some files to the lawyers. Riley’s lawyer, Mary Ryan, admits to having hundreds of documents, but the judge feels Schlichtmann never correctly asked for them. Riley admits to lying, and the judge rules that Riley committed perjury and that Ryan is guilty of “deliberate misconduct.”

A new round of hearings begin, and Facher calls Schlichtmann to the witness stand. Facher has to show that Schlichtmann did not correctly attempt to obtain the Yankee document. Since Schlichtmann won’t testify, Skinner makes Schlichtmann turn over his files.

Skinner rules that Schlichtmann violated Rule 11 because it was clear he had no substantial evidence. He also says that Ryan’s withholding of evidence matches Schlichtmann’s misconduct. Therefore, it’s a wash.

The families visit Schlichtmann and are worried he might take his life, but Schlichtmann isn’t done fighting. He continues to file appeals and new motions, but he’s denied at every turn. He can barely feed himself. Schlichtmann’s firm is doing well, but Schlichtmann isn’t taking any new cases. He rejects a job offer from Kiley.

Conway and Schlichtmann finally throw out the Woburn files, and Schlichtmann files for bankruptcy. He quits law and heads to Hawaii, thanks to a round-trip ticket and petty cash from Kiley.

In Woburn, the EPA files suits against Grace and Beatrice, forcing them to clean up the Aberjona River, which will cost over sixty-nine million dollars. W. R. Grace is indicted by the US attorney for lying, and the company pleads guilty on two felony accounts. Grace ends up closing the plant. 

The story ends as Schlichtmann is backpacking in Hawaii and living off the land. At one point he ponders suicide but decides he has more life to live.


The Negotiation