A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

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The Trial

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The courtroom is packed with over two hundred people who await the opening statements. The Woburn families are not in attendance, per Schlichtmann’s request. After Schlichtmann’s compelling opening statement, the courtroom is silent as they ponder the picture he has painted of Beatrice and Grace’s poisoning of Woburn.

Next, Michael Keating gives an opening statement for W. R. Grace. He admits that Grace employees dumped TCE but promises that Grace will prove the families were not affected.

Lastly, Facher makes his statement for Beatrice Foods. He talks for an hour and a half, explaining how there is no proof that Beatrice used TCE; nor, he argues, is there proof linking TCE exposure to leukemia. He knows he is losing the court’s attention, but he doesn’t want to sit down. He wants to drag out phase one of the trial for as long as he can.

It is now Schlichtmann’s job to prove Beatrice and Grace contaminated the wells, to show that TCE and other chemicals seeped into the ground and migrated to the wells, and to clarify the timeline of these events. Schlichtmann starts his questioning with geologist John Drobinski, a Princeton professor and an expert on groundwater flow. Facher delays as much as he can by objecting at every turn, but his motions are unheeded. After three weeks in court, Drobinski gives his testimony.

Next, Schlichtmann calls to the stand a series of Woburn residents who were alive and in the area between 1950 and 1970. The witnesses testify to having seen debris and barrels on the tannery land.

During the fourth week of trial, it is John Riley’s turn to testify, and Schlichtmann hopes he can get him angry. In a calm manner, Riley denies dumping chemicals or harming the land. Schlichtmann shows Riley the document from the health department, but Riley denies ever meeting with the department or getting a warning.

Schlichtmann is mad that he can’t anger or scare Riley, but Riley begins to unravel when Facher cross-examines him. Keating decides to cross-examine him as well. Keating brings up how the land Riley owns is now conservation land that is deeded for the “use and enjoyment” of Woburn residents. He doesn’t push Riley too much on the topic, but the line of questioning shows clear irony regarding Riley and his toxic land. 

Schlichtmann runs out the clock by repeating questions about the land and the well. He then asks about the destroyed records from 1960 to 1970. This upsets Riley, who starts yelling about TCE. Schlichtmann ends his questioning on that note, but Nesson isn’t sure if the jury understands the implicitly guilty plea Riley has just made.

Six weeks in, Roland Gamache dies of cancer as Schlichtmann begins his case against W. R. Grace. Schlichtmann questions six workers, followed by Thomas Barbas. Barbas tries to conceal what he knows, but the record of his deposition speaks for itself. Schlichtmann is winning the Grace case, but his firm is completely out of money.

Schlichtmann’s firm has a concurrent case, a malpractice surgery on a woman named Helen O’Connell. They’re hoping to settle, which would free up some money for the firm to direct towards the Woburn case. Unfortunately, the insurance company on the defense knows they are going through a serious trial and makes a paltry offer. Schlichtmann rejects it.

The trial drags on into week eight, at which point Schlichtmann has one more witness to call: George F. Pinder, a Ph.D. whose expertise is in hydrology and groundwater movement. Pinder, whose reputation is stellar, comes to court with models and charts for the jury.


(This entire section contains 1408 words.)

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Facher cross-examines Pinder, he points out inconsistencies in the data to get Pinder to slip up, but Pinder is able to compose himself and reply to each nuanced question. Still, the questioning isn’t going well. Pinder gathered his computer data and conducted his fieldwork in Woburn to show the trajectory of the water into the wells. But he can’t account for water lost during the winter months and the possible influence of the nearby Aberjona River. This gap in Pinder’s model troubles both Pinder and Schlichtmann, but after a good night’s sleep, Pinder realizes the answer.

Facher brings up the missing water again, and Pinder jumps at the chance to share his new explanation. Pinder explains that the wells didn’t lose water; they simply didn’t gain any more from the aquifer. Schlichtmann is thrilled with Pinder’s testimony, but Schlichtmann still worries that it may not be convincing enough. Two years later, everyone would learn Pinder was right, his hypothesis verified by the EPA’s findings.

The next day, Facher pokes holes in Pinder’s argument, but after six days of cross-examination, Skinner tells Facher that enough is enough. The following week, Keating cross-examines Pinder, but the risk of this examination is low, because W. R. Grace cannot count the river and water table as possible factors.

On an off day, Schlichtmann and Philips negotiate the O’Connell malpractice case, settling at $590,000, but there’s no celebration. The money is immediately spent on the Woburn case.

Back in court, Facher calls on Thomas Mernin, a Woburn city engineer. Facher wants to show that Mernin felt the water was safe, but Mernin comes across as ignorant. After the testimony, Schlichtmann learns Mernin was recently diagnosed with leukemia. He dies several months later.

Facher’s second expert witness causes more problems. A soil chemist named Olin Braids brings in new evidence to suggest that based on bugs in the soil, the TCE couldn’t have been spilled until 1979. Schlichtmann inquires about Braids’s experience with these correlations and asks for other evidence that suggests his work is valid. Braids doesn’t have answers for Schlichtmann and little to no backing in the scientific community.

The O’Connell settlement is spent and gone, so Gordon works tirelessly to delay payments. They’re into the Woburn case for $2.4 million, and Uncle Pete is angry. The firm’s financial situation is dire that Gordon brings Pete gold coins as collateral and even offers up Schlichtmann’s Porsche.

On day sixty-one, it is Keating’s turn to call forward Grace’s witnesses, but Grace knows they are guilty, so they try to redirect the blame to other companies in the area. However, Grace’s last expert proves a problem for Schlichtmann. Groundwater expert John Guswa believes there is a subterranean path from Grace to the wells. He admits there was TCE moving from the soil to the wells but that a subterranean clog stopped the chemicals from entering the water supply. He feels there was no way for the water supply to be contaminated in the 1979 timeframe.

On the second day of Guswa’s testimony, Nesson scribbles some notes and runs out of the courtroom. He is nowhere to be found that night or the next morning. Schlichtmann is beginning to panic, but his cross-examination of Guswa leads to a fortunate turn. By accident, Guswa implicates Beatrice based on his findings.

Nesson finally resurfaces after a day of research and explains how they can win against Guswa. Schlichtmann uses Guswa’s math and the Darcy Law against Guswa to prove that his figures are off. With more questioning, Schlichtmann breaks Guswa, showing that the EPA’s original report is accurate.

In July, the judge allows all jurors and lawyers to travel to Woburn. They start touring the Grace property and make their way to the wells. Lastly, they see the Beatrice property. At every stop, it’s clear someone had been trying to clean and beautify the area for the jury’s trip.

Finally, the judge decides there is enough evidence against Grace but not against Beatrice. He strikes all information before 1968 in the Beatrice case. This excised information includes Schlichtmann’s witnesses who saw the barrels as well as the health inspector’s document that proves Riley knew about the waste. The judge decides that the jury will be asked four questions to consider during deliberation. The lawyers struggle to agree on clear and concise questions.

Seventy-six days into the trial, Schlichtmann stands up to give his closing argument. He enlarges and presents the four questions to help the jury understand them. His closing statements are proceeding poorly, mainly because Facher keeps objecting and throwing Schlichtmann off track. When Schlichtmann finishes his statements, Nesson is worried.


Facher's Plea


The Vigil