A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

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Orphans & Dogs

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Last Updated on February 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1348

After the Rule 11 hearing, Schlichtmann’s excitement about the Woburn case dies down as he focuses on his rising career. Schlichtmann and Conway land a big case surrounding a hotel fire thanks to Reed. Schlichtmann spares no expense to prepare this case and decides to create an atmosphere unlike a trial to present his findings. He rents out the Ritz ballroom and invites both sides to attend the presentation, offering lunches and dinners. The two work alongside Bill Crowley, another young Reed & Mulligan lawyer. After days of presenting evidence, Schlichtmann walks out of the dispute with $2.25 million. Feeling proud of his new way of negotiating, he decides to follow this format for all his cases.

Things quickly shift after Reed takes most of the money and all the credit for the settlement. Schlichtmann opens his own firm, and Conway, Crowley, and Kathy Boyer go with him. They open Schlichtmann, Conway & Crowley on the second floor of a historic building near the courthouse. They spare no expense hiring a decorator, believing perception is crucial. Schlichtman and Conway smile about their success. Conway encourages Schlichtmann to dump the Woburn case.

When the firm opens, they get their share of “orphans” and “dogs.” Dogs are frivolous cases in which the accusers are clearly looking to get paid, whereas orphans are cases that look promising but have been turned down by multiple firms. One orphan catches Conway’s eye: Paul Carney was in a small motor-vehicle accident. He was taken to the hospital for whiplash, but five months later, Carney contracted severe infections and is now wheelchair-bound.

Schlichtmann abandons the Woburn case for Carney’s and spends months unraveling the puzzle, putting nearly two hundred thousand dollars into the case. He believes the bone infection causing Carney to be wheelchair-bound occurred from a prolonged treatment of steroids. He brings this evidence to the Ritz, and the insurance company retreats. They offer its max settlement: one million dollars. Schlichtmann turns it down, believing the case is worth three.

As the firm prepares for trial, Schlichtmann runs into Cheeseman on the street. Schlichtmann invites Cheeseman up to see his work on the Carney case, and Cheeseman is astonished by his evidence. Cheeseman keeps thinking about the Woburn case and hopes Schlichtmann loses the Carney case.

A large audience comes to watch Schlichtmann work the Carney case. On the fifteenth day of trial, Carney is awarded $4.7 million dollars. Schlichtmann makes the front page of the Boston Herald for the largest award sum in Bay State history. This win gives Schlichtmann the confidence to start and end the Woburn case once and for all.

While Schlichtmann was working the Carney case, two Harvard professors completed a three-year study on leukemia clusters in Woburn. The research began after Anne and Young spoke at the School of Public Health. Professor Marven Zelen believed he knew a way to solve this “riddle” through statistical analysis. Zelen and a colleague collect information on every child born in Woburn between 1960 and 1982 through a telephone survey. The final study showed strong evidence to suggest water from wells G and H were linked to “adverse health effects.” The study also determined a positive link between the water and leukemia. Even Dr. Truman starts to believe leukemia could be triggered by external stimuli. However, many credible sources, such as the CDC, speak out against the findings.

Cheeseman waits for Schlichtmann’s next move, intending to ask Skinner to drop the case because there is no direct evidence showing that the water causes leukemia. Cheeseman visits Harvard to see the labs of two doctors who have treated over two thousand leukemia patients. While the EPA suspects that TCE is linked to disease, the only evidence they have is through animal testing. Cheeseman calls Facher to see if they can work together, but once again, Facher declines.

Cheeseman moves forward with his work, convincing two doctors to sign an affidavit stating there is no clear link between TCE and leukemia. He requests an oral hearing to determine the outcome of this motion, leaving Schlichtmann and Roisman a week to respond. Cheeseman has a solid motion in place, and Schlichtmann knows this. Schlichtmann asks Cheeseman for a 30-day extension. Cheeseman is surprised but concedes.

Roisman connects Schlichtmann with Dr. Alan Levin, an immunologist in California. Levin believes Woburn suffered constant, low-grade exposure to TCE which damaged the immune systems of the families. Levin refers Schlichtmann to an immunopathologist at Harvard, Dr. Rovert Colvin, who says he could run some tests, however, it will cost Schlichtmann ten thousand dollars. Colvin isn’t convinced he can find usable evidence but agrees to try.

Colvin tests the Zonas family first, and to his surprise, he finds far more abnormalities than expected. He isn’t sure what the findings mean but believes the results are “very unusual.” Schlichtmann asks Cheeseman for another 30-day extension, which he grants. This extra time allows Colvin to complete the testing. He finds a pattern of increased white cells that could correlate to a carcinogen such as TCE. With this data, Levin argues that there is a carcinogen present in the environment, and everyone who was exposed had an immune system on high alert. The kids who died from leukemia had weak immune systems that could not fight off the carcinogen.

Colvin feels confident that something is wrong and runs another test group in Woburn, which costs Schlichtmann five thousand dollars. Up against the clock, Levin finds a case of three hundred workers exposed to TCE and perchloroethylene (PERC), resulting in negative side effects. While the study doesn’t pinpoint one particular chemical, the results line up with Levin’s theory.

Schlichtmann draws up a document stating “to a reasonable medical certainty” that the wells caused or contributed to illness. The judge denies Cheeseman’s motion, stating this case should be settled in court. Cheeseman believes the judge is angry about the Rule 11 motion and feels it will haunt him forever.

In August, Schlichtmann, Cheeseman, and Facher are called into Skinner’s chambers. Skinner tells the men they have nine months to compile their discovery. A jury will be selected the following May.

Conway is hesitant to move forward, reminding Schlichtmann that Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) and Roisman are the leads on this case. Schlichtmann flies out to Milwaukee to meet with TLPJ’s board of directors to procure more money by sharing the latest details, but he is met with anger. The board backs out, puts Schlichtmann in charge, and will only take a small fee for their earlier work.

Meanwhile, Cheeseman finds out damning news about Grace. Reports have surfaced which show more TCE use than originally reported as well as improper waste disposal. He knows he will lose the case to Schlichtmann, but Cheeseman has another idea. He finds another Woburn company called Unifirst who used TCE and once admitted to a spill. He wants to bring them into the suit, hoping it will drain Schlichtmann’s resources. He neglects to tell Facher about this development.

Skinner approves the Unifirst motion, but—contrary to Cheeseman’s expectation—this information delights Schlichtmann. Schlichtmann knew about the company but didn’t pursue it, because they reportedly never used TCE. On top of this new information, Unifirst’s evidence matches that of Grace, which means this “trick” by Cheeseman hurts his own case. Schlichtmann calls Unifirst, and they decide to find a way to settle and remove their name from this lawsuit. 

Facher is mad, calling Cheeseman’s move a “serious blunder.” Facher reminds Cheeseman that it doesn’t matter which company possibly contaminated the wells, because their strategy has depended on denying any contamination. Cheeseman’s move essentially admits that there was contamination.

Months later, Grace forces Cheeseman to drop the Unifirst claims due to a countersuit which Facher predicted. This creates an opening for Schlichtmann to negotiate with Unifirst, resulting in a one-million-dollar settlement. He meets with the families in Woburn to celebrate and asks to use this money to continue funding the Woburn case. The families agree.

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Rule 11