A Civil Action Themes

The central themes of A Civil Action are the pursuit of justice and the question of corporate and judicial ethics.

  • The pursuit of justice: The Woburn case is exceptional in that concerns a massive, concealed transgression. As such, the prosecution is motivated by more than mere compensation; they seek justice for the wrongs perpetrated in Woburn in the name of corporate interests.
  • Corporate and judicial ethics: The book examines how corporations can violate the law and then shield themselves with clever legal maneuvering. Both Grace and Beatrice poisoned the Woburn waterways, the legal system fails to hold them responsible.


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Last Updated on October 28, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

The Pursuit of Justice

Long before the residents of Woburn, Massachusetts, notice a striking number of leukemia cases around their town, they fought for their right to clean water. The water quality of Woburn began to concern residents around the time that Well G and Well H were established; their water corroded pipes and faucets and had an unpleasant odor, color, and taste. The residents succeeded in convincing authorities to close down the wells a number of times, though they were always reopened. 

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When several children in the area are diagnosed with leukemia, Anne Anderson begins to suspect that the water has something to do with it. The 1979 discovery of high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), believed to be a carcinogen, in the well water supports her suspicions, and the residents of Woburn began to seek justice for the sick and dying children in their community. 

Lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, though initially daunted by the lack of evidence against Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace, fights a long and grueling battle in court to prove the companies’ culpability and goes bankrupt in the process. Even after the verdict is reached—Grace is held accountable while Beatrice is not—Schlichtmann continues to attempt to win justice by calling for an appeal of the Beatrice ruling. Though he is unsuccessful, Grace and Beatrice, along with other companies guilty of contaminating the water, are later made to pay millions of dollars in an environmental cleanup. 

Corporate and Judicial Ethics

The conclusion of the Woburn trial is, in itself, the book’s greatest demonstration of injustice: W. R. Grace pays a relatively small sum of $8 million to the families of the leukemia victims, and Beatrice Foods is found not liable. However, years later, these companies are proven by the Environmental Protection Agency...

(The entire section contains 507 words.)

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