A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

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The Negotiation

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Schlichtmann’s team gets to work on their next move. Everyone is present except Nesson, who is on an extended vacation with his family. Schlichtmann’s firm knows taking phase two to trial would be a “roll of the dice.” The jury was divided on the phase one evidence, and it’s quite likely the judge will dismiss three of the leukemia cases based on the jury’s 1973 date. The firm also doesn’t have any money to spare. They know they have to settle the case, but they have to make it seem as though they are planning to go to trial so as to not alert Grace’s legal team.

Schlichtmann goes to Foley, Hoag & Eliot to see Keating. Keating arranges for a Grace executive to fly up and talk about a settlement. Schlichtmann and crew decide the case is still worth twenty-five million dollars, so they plan on asking for thirty-five million, leaving room to negotiate. But Conway wants to continue strategizing. He wants to know when the firm will walk away from the negotiation table and head to trial, but this suggestion unnerves the group. Most of the group offers up numbers between ten and fifteen million, but Schlichtmann isn’t budging. He says he will walk from any offer less than twenty-five million.

The firm picks the Lafayette Hotel for their negotiation space, a place that has “old-world elegance” and a new account with no record of debt. Albert Eustis, Grace executive vice president and counsel, arrives ready to hear the bottom line. Eustis likes the firm’s idea of donating some of the winnings to research and is willing to work with the numbers provided. He tells the men he must bring the figures to the Grace board, which will meet the following week, but something isn’t sitting right with Schlichtmann. Eustis makes plans for Schlichtmann to come down to New York the day after the board meeting.

The following week, Schlichtmann and his partners head to New York. They go to the Grace headquarters, but the negotiations don’t go well. Grace is quite hostile in their negotiation tactics and gives the firm a “take it or leave” it number at $6.6 million.

Schlichtmann and his associates discuss the ethical responsibilities of telling the families about the settlement, the imminent September 5th meeting date, and the possibility of getting ten million dollars out of Grace. The group aims to convince Schlichtmann to end this case, but Schlichtmann isn’t ready to let go.

At the airport, Schlichtmann runs into Keating and asks him to meet with him in Boston so they can “keep talking,” but legally, Keating has to talk to Eustis first. He tells Schlichtmann he’ll call him Monday. Once they part, Keating calls Eustis and tells him it seems like Schlichtmann is desperate to settle.

On Monday, Keating tells Schlichtmann the company doesn’t want to look guilty, nor do they want to open the door for other personal-injury lawyers to wreak havoc in Woburn. Schlichtmann discusses the possibility of a package that would get Schlichtmann the money he needs and also ensure no other settlements would come out of Woburn.

The firm comes up with a plan. They will have Keating file a motion to vacate the verdict on the grounds that Grace isn’t liable based on evidence. Schlichtmann would agree based on the settlement. He could even talk the families into telling the press that Beatrice and other Woburn companies were responsible for contamination. The goal is a settlement of twelve million dollars.

Gordon accompanies Schlichtmann to New York for another meeting with Eustis, but Schlichtmann and Eustis...

(This entire section contains 1323 words.)

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meet alone. They have barely touched upon the settlement when a handwritten note is brought to Eustis. Schlichtmann believes someone from the company, maybe J. Peter Grace himself, is listening in. Eustis reads the note and asks Schlichtmann to accompany him to the Harvard Club for lunch. Schlichtmann doesn’t want to go but knows he needs to keep Eustis talking.

Lunch is agonizing. Eustis tells Schlichtmann it’s an unwritten rule that business is never discussed in the Club. There are awkward pauses, but Schlichtmann makes it through the meal. Once they leave, Eustis asks Schlichtmann for a bottom line. Schlichtmann heads back to the hotel to call Boston and decide on a number. After some arguments and quick math, the firm decides on $16.2 million.

Eustis doesn’t take the offer but tells Schlichtmann to spend another night in New York. He has to speak with the board before they move forward. Schlichtmann feels hopeful again, but the next day, Eustis asks for one more day in the city. Gordon is angry and tells Schlichtmann they are going home. Schlichtmann complies.

Back in Boston, the firm has fourteen days to make a decision before phase two begins. Eustis never calls, and Schlichtmann decides it’s time to go to war. He knows he has to try this case instead of collecting some money to stay afloat. He starts thinking about his next move and if he can get the families on the stand to testify.  If he can’t, he’ll get the families in the courtroom and have them speak with the press during the breaks. Schlichtmann calls Eustis, who still refuses to settle. They both agree to go to trial.

Gordon and Conway are deeply worried about their financial situation. Both of them have families, whereas Schlichtmann has nothing to lose. Gordon works night and day to protect the firm. They have lawsuits against them for lack of payment, and he is fending off other companies in hopes that he can stall more legal action. Conway calls Gordon in a panic, worried about the judge’s next move. He could dismiss certain witnesses, call for a mistrial, and so much more. Gordon heads to Milk Street to calm Conway’s nerves. 

The hearing date arrives, and Schlichtmann, Eustis, and Keating meet with Skinner. During the hearing, Keating asks for a new trial based on the publicity of the case, but Skinner doesn’t seem pleased with the idea. The only other option would be to ask the jurors more questions stemming from the answers they gave during phase one. Schlichtmann grows concerned as the judge reviews the evidence linking the chemicals to cancer. Skinner explains the evidence shows cancer in animals and not humans. Schlichtmann is worried the judge will never rule in his favor.

Schlichtmann, Conway, and Philips head to the bar after the hearing. Philips is ready to take the case all the way to his financial demise, but Conway wants to end it now with a settlement. Ethically, Schlichtmann has to tell the families about the offer, so he calls them into his office the next morning. The group agrees they are all in this together but not for the money. They want someone to take the blame and acknowledge that their families suffered because of these chemicals. Schlichtmann knows Anne will have to take the stand first if he wants any chance of winning.

The next day, Schlichtmann goes to the courthouse in a panic, asking to speak to Skinner. He tells the clerk he wants the judge to know that he and Grace are working on a settlement. He wants to ensure that the judge knows this information before ruling on the case. Keating calls Schlichtmann and tells him he asked the judge to hold off on his ruling. It seems he, too, is afraid of the judge’s ruling and wants to see if they can come to an agreement without Skinner’s involvement.

Eustis calls Schlichtmann that afternoon and pushes the settlement to eight million dollars. The entire firm wants to settle, except for Schlichtmann. It takes some time, but Schlichtmann calls Eustis back and agrees to the eight-million-dollar deal. Now, all Schlichtmann wants is his old life back.


The Vigil


Blindman's Bluff