A Civil Action Analysis

  • A Civil Action offers an enlightening view into the world of personal injury law. Like many personal injury cases, the Woburn case pits corporations against private citizens. Throughout the book, the tragedies of individuals facing disease and death prove affecting. By contrast, corporations, faceless and greedy, prove unmoving.
  • The book offers a window into environmental regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with its authoritative research, becomes a key player in the Woburn case. After the dismaying 1988 settlement, the EPA comes forward to fine both Beatrice and Grace, forcing them to clean up the Woburn waterways.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on October 28, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

In A Civil Action, author Jonathan Harr narrates the events of the 1986 trial Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., in which residents of Woburn, Massachusetts, attempt to win justice after the contamination of their water system by two companies, W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. The book follows residents such as Anne Anderson as they grapple with their children’s illnesses and become aware of the cancer cluster in their town, as well as lawyer Jan Schlichtmann as he takes on Grace and Beatrice in court. 

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Civil Action Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Leukemia is a rare disease; Anne Anderson is therefore surprised and startled by its prevalence in Woburn. A neighbor who lives a block away from the Andersons informs her that “two families on either side of her each [have] a boy with leukemia.” Anderson finds this odd, and the leukemia cases in Woburn continue to multiply. When Anderson and a Woburn minister, Reverend Young, plot out the leukemia occurrences on a map, they find that half of them are concentrated in a single neighborhood. Twelve cases in one town is unusual for a disease that supposedly affects “fewer than four out of one hundred thousand children each year.” Besides the alarming number of leukemia cases, other health issues, such as skin rashes and miscarriages, begin to affect residents.

When the residents of Woburn consult a specialist in leukemia clusters and ultimately pursue legal action, A Civil Action becomes a glimpse inside the process of personal injury cases and the American judicial system as a whole. Though the companies accused of misconduct are held accountable for their actions later by the Environmental Protection Agency, the story of the trial is one of injustice, scheming, and greed: the judge seems partial to the defendants, and Beatrice Foods’ attorney is accused of having withheld evidence. Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., also highlights the gross imbalance of power between the companies and their victims, as well as the advantages wealthy corporations have in court: the plaintiffs’ ability to fight for justice for their town is restricted by the funds available to their attorneys, whereas Beatrice and Grace have nearly unlimited funds at their disposal. 

Due to the detailed descriptions of the sufferings of the leukemia victims and their parents at the beginning of the book, as well as the narration of the frustrating and stressful trial, the verdict reached in Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc. will strike readers as a  great injustice. The EPA’s eventual victory in condemning these companies and making them pay for a cleanup program provides some satisfaction, but for this trial, W. R. Grace pays the relatively small settlement of $8 million, and Beatrice Foods is found not liable. Through this detailed account of the Woburn case and trial, Harr demonstrates how corporate power and corruption have undermined the judicial system’s fundamental purpose: to uncover the truth and ensure social justice in the United States.

A Civil Action

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1822

Woburn, Massachusetts, a town of thirty-six thousand people, lies twelve miles north of Boston. The...

(The entire section contains 2303 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this A Civil Action study guide. You'll get access to all of the A Civil Action content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Chapter Summaries
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
  • Quotes
  • Critical Essays
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial