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.


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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. 

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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

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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 protracted civil action that is the subject of this engrossing narrative had its roots in the drilling of two wells in Woburn: Well G in 1964 and Well H in 1967. Both wells were slightly to the east of the Aberjona River; they were southwest of a plant owned by W. R. Grace, the multinational chemical company, and northeast of the John J. Riley Tannery, owned by the Chicago conglomerate Beatrice Foods. The water from the two new wells served mostly the homes to the wells’ southeast. By the late 1960’s, residents’ complaints about the color and the taste of their water led to the wells being shut down several times.

This was the situation in 1972, when three-year-old Jimmie Anderson, who lived just south of the wells, was diagnosed with leukemia. Over the next several years, more children fell sick with leukemia, and 184 barrels of industrial waste were found abandoned in a vacant field west of the wells in early 1979. Subsequent tests of the wells turned up heavy contamination with trichloroethylene (TCE), a powerful industrial solvent identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “probable” carcinogen. By late 1979, twelve children in the area had been diagnosed with leukemia.

As a result of these events, a Boston lawyer named Joe Mulligan was hired in 1980 to represent the families of the victims. In January of 1981, Jimmie Anderson died, and five days later the Centers for Disease Control and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a report entitled Woburn: Cancer Incidence and Environmental Hazards. The report judged the incidence of leukemia in east Woburn to be seven times greater than would ordinarily be expected. It further emphasized that although there was no proof that the contaminants in the wells would cause leukemia, their presence was a cause for suspicion.

At this point, Mulligan turned the file over to Jan Schlichtmann, a new lawyer he had hired. Schlichtmann had studied philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, and upon graduation in 1972 he had begun selling insurance. After he had sold almost a million dollars’ worth of insurance in six months, he was inspired by the Watergate hearings to enroll at Cornell University and earn a law degree. Tall and slender, a devotee of expensive clothes and a Porsche, and an abstainer from coffee, tobacco, and the chemicals in canned foods, Schlichtmann soon won a reputation for successfully pushing injury suits to the limit while surviving on a scant budget. In many ways Schlichtmann was an ideal choice to face the two Fortune 500 firms involved in the Woburn case.

By late 1982, Schlichtmann had still not filed a complaint. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a group from Washington, D.C., had become interested in the case. At Schlichtmann’s invitation, the group’s executive director, Anthony Roisman, took over as lead counsel, with Schlichtmann continuing as local counsel. On May 14, 1982, Roisman and Schlichtmann filed a long complaint alleging that subsidiaries of Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace had dumped toxic chemicals that had made their way into the plaintiffs’ drinking water.

Beatrice Foods hired Jerome Facher, chairman of the litigation department at the Boston-based law firm Hale and Dorr, to defend the company. Facher was sixty years old, was divorced, and taught trial practice at Harvard University. Parsimonious by habit, he lunched on napkin-wrapped scraps gleaned from the firm’s Friday lunch buffet.

Lead counsel for W. R. Grace was William Cheeseman, senior partner at Foley, Hoag & Eliot in Boston. Cheeseman had a powerful, logical mind and had studied mathematical physics at Harvard. Aware of his methodical ways, he nursed various studied eccentricities—diverse hats and caps, sheepskin coats, suits bought off the rack, long hair, and a Triumph sports car that he raced in supermarket parking lots.

In 1982, some 4,811 civil actions were filed in the U.S. District Court in Boston, with a lottery determining which of the court’s nine trial judges would hear each case. The Woburn case went to Judge Walter Jay Skinner. The fifty-six-year-old Skinner would walk up the fifteen flights of stairs to his office, his back bowed from surgery to correct a disk problem. He was known to be fair, curt, and efficient. He completed the trio of Harvard Law School graduates with whom Schlichtmann would have to match wits.

Schlichtmann and two other lawyers from Mulligan’s group soon formed their own firm, Schlichtmann, Conway & Crowley. In February of 1984, the case took on new life with the release of a study by several Harvard researchers that strongly implicated the two suspect wells in the Woburn neighborhood’s health problems.

When Cheeseman learned that a decade earlier Grace had buried six drums of toxic waste, including TCE, in a trench behind its plant, he began to worry. The EPA had ordered these drums dug up, and its report had also implicated another Woburn company, Unifirst, a manufacturer of work clothes. Since Unifirst had admitted to at least one spill of TCE, Cheeseman moved to bring this third company into the case. His move backfired, however, since Unifirst agreed to settle for $1,050,000.

The discovery phase of the suit began in January of 1985, with the taking of depositions. Although Schlichtmann could not prove that any TCE had actually gotten into the wells, he had no trouble proving that Grace had dumped the solvent on its property. Demonstrating culpability on the part of Beatrice, however, was difficult. The tannery manager, John J. Riley, was hostile and impossible to pin down; he testified under oath that there were no records surviving of chemicals that the tannery had used before 1979.

As the case wore on, with one expensive expert witness after another testifying, Schlichtmann’s expenses for the case approached the million-dollar mark by late 1985. Still it went on, with everyone in the firm panicking over finances; the accountant was called upon to reassure the firm’s banker while applying for bank cards with cash advance credit. Schlichtmann was living on nerve, and his behavior at depositions became so outrageous that Skinner eventually called him into his chambers for a thorough reprimand that became known as the “Woodshed Conference.”

Finally, despite Facher’s plea for a postponement to study 23,337 pages of deposition transcripts, jury selection began in mid-February of 1986. At this point, Facher devised a brilliant strategy. He knew that he could not allow thirty-three plaintiffs to take the stand and describe the suffering of their children, so he asked Judge Skinner to divide the trial into two phases: a “waterworks” phase in which the jury had to determine whether the two companies had actually dumped chemicals that got into the water and, if the judgment was yes, then a second phase to determine whether the pollutants had killed the leukemia patients. This plan dampened Schlichtmann’s case by preventing him from leading off with the emotional drama of poisoned children.

Soon after being taken to the woodshed by Skinner, Schlichtmann enlisted the help of Charles Nesson, a Harvard Law School professor and an expert on evidence and criminal law. As a Harvard undergraduate, Nesson had studied mathematics, a discipline that saved Schlichtmann’s case during the expert testimony phase of pro- ceedings. Schlichtmann’s expert on hydrology and groundwater movement, George Pinder of Princeton University, became rattled by Facher’s caustic probing in cross-examination; although Pinder’s testimony eventually proved accurate, his waffling on the witness stand did not help. When Grace’s expert groundwater witness, John Guswa, took the stand, however, his testimony was destroyed by the brilliance of Nesson, who went home and pored over Darcy’s Law, a formula to compute the flow of water through porous media, and then confounded Guswa with it the next day. Guswa ended up admitting that the contamination in the wells could have come from the direction of the Grace plant.

When the testimony ended, Judge Skinner refused to direct a verdict in the defendants’ favor, even though his rulings rendered the case against Beatrice very thin. Skinner directed the lawyers to draw up questions that the jury would have to answer; Facher pounced on this requirement, compiling long lists of questions that the jurors would have to ponder before moving on to the next. After two days of intense squabbling, Skinner allowed four intricate questions. First, did the evidence indicate that any of the chemicals were dumped on the Beatrice land after August 27, 1968, or on the Grace land after October 1, 1964, and if so, had they contaminated the wells before May 22, 1979? Second, if yes, then what was the earliest date they could have done so? Third, had the contamination occurred because of the defendants’ lack of care? Finally, if yes, then what was the earliest time that the contamination in question three could have been caused by the defendants’ negligence? These difficult questions were the fruit of seventy-six days of trial and, in the frustrated Nesson’s mind, were entirely the consequence of the judge’s decision to divide the trial into two phases.

After a week of struggling with the questions, the jury concluded that Beatrice could not be held liable but that Grace was guilty. Bitter, protracted negotiations began immediately with Grace, with everyone finally agreeing to a settlement of eight million dollars on September 22, 1986. Several plaintiffs then sued Schlichtmann over the $2.6 million that he claimed for expenses, and the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice took $300,000. Schlichtmann was left with thirty thousand dollars, but no money had been set aside to pay taxes. While Schlichtmann was vacationing in Hawaii, the EPA reported that its tests showed that both Grace and Beatrice had contaminated the city wells.

Nesson, meanwhile, had prepared an appeal of the Beatrice ruling, and as that was progressing through the system a 1983 document entitled “Hydrogeologic Investigation of the John J. Riley Tanning Company” turned up in the EPA office, a discovery that led to a long battle in which Schlichtmann claimed this evidence had been concealed from him. Skinner ruled against Schlichtmann in January of 1988, but eleven months later the U.S. Court of Appeals found “overwhelming evidence” of misconduct by Beatrice’s counsel and sent the case back to Skinner. The new hearings ended in March of 1989; in July, Skinner ruled that even more hearings were necessary. New witnesses testified, and Schlichtmann was optimistic, but Skinner ruled in December that Schlichtmann had violated Rule 11 of Civil Procedure by pursuing a frivolous claim. His report went to the Court of Appeals on March 26, 1990, and it was all over.

In the aftermath, Schlichtmann filed for bankruptcy, the EPA mounted a 69.4- million-dollar cleanup to be paid for by Beatrice and Grace, and Grace was indicted by the U.S. attorney for lying to the EPA.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXII, November 3, 1995, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 10, 1995, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXXVI, October 2, 1995, p. 89.

Time. CXLVI, October 2, 1995, p. 84.

The Washington Monthly. XXVII, September, 1995, p. 50.

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