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.

Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(The entire section contains 507 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your subscription to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Start your Subscription

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. 

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 to be responsible for the contamination and are made to pay a much higher sum of money to clean up the Woburn water system. Though both companies are guilty, the clever maneuvering of their lawyers allows them to avoid serious consequences when the case is first brought against them. 

The defendants’ tactics greatly frustrate and anger the plaintiffs and Schlichtmann; for example, Jerome Facher, the lead attorney for Beatrice Foods, convinces the judge to postpone testimonies from the leukemia victims’ families until later in the trial because he knows they would emotionally influence the jury. Additionally, one of Facher’s associates exasperates witnesses by asking them seemingly irrelevant questions such as “Do you eat bacon?” and “Do you have Teflon pans?” (Bacon and Teflon pans both contain carcinogens; he is attempting to cast doubt on Beatrice’s status as a primary contributor to the contamination.)

After the conclusion of the trial, an important document that Beatrice Foods failed to disclose in the discovery process is unearthed, and Schlichtmann accuses Beatrice of withholding evidence—yet another example of corporate wrongdoing. The United States Court of Appeals agrees and sends the case back to Skinner for reconsideration on the grounds of Beatrice’s misconduct; Skinner, however, refuses to retry the case.

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Civil Action Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Chapter Summaries

Next

Characters