A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

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The Woodshed

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Schlichtmann’s office is a “war zone.” Every room is filled with documentation on the Woburn case. He hires two recent law grads, a paralegal, and other support staff from a temp agency to help prepare for trial. Schlichtmann needs full medical histories on each of the thirty-three Woburn residents and puts twenty-two-year-old receptionist Patti D’Addieco in charge of the task.

Schlichtmann flies in an occupational and environmental specialist named Shirley Conibear, who agrees to see and assess all of the twenty-eight living residents in the case. The final report costs Schlichtmann almost ninety thousand dollars, but it shows a correlation between health issues and the timeline of wells G and H contamination. Conibear feels this evidence is not a coincidence, because the families’ health issues fit the criteria for TCE exposure.

On Conibear’s recommendation, Schlichtmann gets cardiologist Saul Cohen to provide a cardiac workup on the families. His services cost Schlichtmann over fifty-five thousand dollars, but the data shows that all candidates have irregular heartbeats, which he finds “quite striking.” 

Even with this data, it’s hard to prove that the Woburn families were suffering from these health issues strictly because of TCE, but Conibear believes there is a correlation based on the known health effects from TCE use. Schlichtmann calls Feldman, the neurologist he used in the Carney case, and asks him to review the evidence. Feldman has written many articles and published groundbreaking work on the effects of TCE. He’s skeptical, but he says he can run the same tests on the Woburn families that he did for workers exposed to TCE. It will cost Schlichtmann thousands, but Schlichtmann fully believes he has cracked this case; he simply needs the evidence to prove it.

The results of Feldman’s testing aren’t all dramatic, but they aren’t normal. The most significant data comes from the blink test. The doctor who runs the test has no background about the Woburn families. She is so concerned with the results that she makes random hospital employees take the test to ensure something isn’t wrong with the machine. Feldman feels the odds of such a group producing such results are “a million to one.” 

Schlichtmann is connected with a biochemist in California, Beverly Paigen, who worked on a case about TCE exposure that is similar to the Woburn case. While she thinks the drinking water is part of the problem, she has realized that TCE turns to vapor in the shower, causing inhalation exposure. This information leads Schlichtmann to a toxicologist who confirms this finding. He shows Schlichtmann a new study about how TCE is absorbed through the skin while showering. Schlichtmann can now prove significant exposure: drinking water, skin absorption, and TCE vapor in the shower. He may not be able to link the chemical to leukemia, but he feels he has enough evidence to show that more kids would have survived if not for TCE, based on the data about weak immune systems.

Schlichtmann wants his team to be on the same page, so he rents out the Ritz ballroom and brings his entire team of doctors together. Conway is getting worried. The bills are piling up, and they have to borrow money from the bank. Schlichtmann calls on their financial advisors, James Gordon and Mark Phillips. 

Gordon has been working with Schlichtmann since the Piper Arrow case, and his company has since become an extension of Schlichtmann’s firm. Schlichtmann has already spent a million dollars, and by Gordon’s estimates, he will probably need another half million to finish this case. Gordon takes Schlichtmann to see “Uncle Pete,” whose real name is George...

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Kennedy Briggs II. He is the vice president at the Private Banking Group at the Bank of Boston. Uncle Pete has financed all of Schlichtmann’s major cases and has watched his debt rise and fall over the last four years. 

Gordon and Schlichtmann draw up a document showing all the possibilities of the monetary outcome of the Woburn case, along with the assets of the firm, in hopes of obtaining the funds they need to win, but Uncle Pete is concerned because Schlichtmann still owes two hundred thousand dollars from his last case. Looking at the evidence from the case, Uncle Pete agrees to loan a half million more.

As the discovery period moves forward, the case becomes more contentious. Skinner wants nothing to do with the motions each side is filing against the other, so he sends them to a magistrate to work through their requests. However, Schlichtmann slights the magistrate upon their first meeting, which causes an obvious bias. The opposing counsel now benefits from this tension because the magistrate refuses to grant any of Schlichtmann’s motions.

Facher and Cheeseman have a right to depose Schlichtmann’s team of doctors, but Schlichtmann has had no time to teach them about testifying. The magistrate rules, and Schlichtmann has no choice. Schlichtmann makes a hasty decision and lets the lawyers depose three doctors, but only because he doesn’t want to postpone the trial date. Knowing his witnesses aren’t ready to be deposed, Schlichtmann anticipates a tough situation. 

The depositions don’t go well, and Schlichtmann’s behavior becomes erratic. The defense refuses to follow the agreed-on format, only asking questions that pertain to types of testing and facts. Schlichtmann yells, pulls his witness from the room, and accuses the defense of intentionally ruining his case.

The lawyers meet with Skinner, who states he doesn’t have time to deal with more motions from the groups. Schlichtmann is glad he isn’t in trouble but becomes concerned when he sees Facher stay longer and speak with the judge, a violation if it’s indeed true. 

The next morning, Schlichtmann is called to Skinner’s chambers, who is furious with Schlichtmann after reading the motions he said he wasn’t going to read. Schlichtmann, Facher, and Cheeseman’s associate, Temin, attend the meeting.

Skinner is furious at Schlichtmann’s behavior during the depositions, but Schlichtmann feels he has a leg to stand on, because the defense didn’t follow the protocol of the “special” deposition. Skinner doesn’t care and threatens Schlichtmann. Schlichtmann knows the judge has made all the concessions possible and apologizes to the judge, because he knows the judge could throw him off this case. Schlichtmann asks to speak with the lawyers alone, which Skinner grants. Once the judge leaves, he tells the lawyers he settled with Unifirst and has enough money to finish this case. They can either prepare for court or settle.

Facher calls this meeting the “Woodshed,” and uses the term to keep Schlichtmann in check. He is happy to see Unifirst settle and hopes he can do the same. When Facher learns Schlichtmann receives one million from the settlement, he calls Schlichtmann and tries to settle the Woburn case on behalf Beatrice. He feels Cheeseman and Grace can do as they please. 

Schlichtmann, Conway, and Gordan go to Hale and Dorr to speak with Facher. The negotiation begins quickly. Facher says Schlichtmann doesn’t have a solid case against Beatrice, only Grace. Schlichtmann isn’t against settling, but he wants to meet on neutral ground with all of the shareholders. Facher says he is “Mr. Beatrice Foods,” and he will make the final call. Schlichtmann feels they are at an impasse and refuses to give Facher a number. The conversation ends as Facher threateningly tells Schlichtmann that his witnesses will never make it to the witness stand.

Now Schlichtmann thinks back to the conversations between Skinner and Facher and wonders if the judge holds Facher in higher esteem. Because of the Woodshed incident, Schlchtmann is concerned he won’t get his clients on the stand.




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