A Civil Action Book Review

Toxic Company

Date: September 10, 1995, Sunday, Late Edition - Final Byline: By Gregg Easterbrook; Lead:

A CIVIL ACTION By Jonathan Harr.

You watching: A civil action book review

500 pp. New York: Random Housage. $25. Text:

IN January 1972, a woman in Woburn, Mass., called Anne Anderboy took her 3-year-old son Jimmy for treatment of what appeared a severe cold, and also soon learned to her horror that the illness was leukemia. This personal tragedy would become a public one as, via the 1970's, Ms. Anderchild discovered that tright here existed in Woburn, a tiny commercial tvery own exterior Boston, an inexplicable number of youngsters afflicted through leukemia. On the destructive day in 1980 as soon as an ambulance took Jimmy to a hospital soon before his fatality, among the firemen on the crew showed to be a guy whose very own young kid had recently passed away of leukemia. And while the Woburn leukemia cases were being found, significant toxic air pollution was being found in two of the city's water wells.

For all the fear of chemical waste in the USA given that the 1978 revelations at Love Canal, public health difficulties from dumped toxics have actually been much less constant than many kind of civilization had actually expected. Many type of epidemiological studies, consisting of a significant effort by the National Research Council in 1991, have actually faicaused discover any kind of as a whole pattern of wellness deterioration caused by chemical wastes. The principal factor appears to be that many spilled chemicals have actually been included close to the dumping point, preventing general expocertain. At Woburn, but, toxics infiltrated the city water supply, and also from tright here gone into the bodies of children. Anne Anderson and also other Woburn parental fees lived a true chemical horror story, one told in the crucial new book "A Civil Action" by Jonathan Harr, a former staff writer at New England also Monthly.

"A Civil Action" focuses on a licapacity lawsuit filed by eight Woburn family members versus Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace. These corporations were accused of dumping chemicals (especially trichlo roethylene, a probable humale carcinogen) in ways that allowed the compounds to reach Woburn's water. In the finish, both carriers agreed to finance an expensive cleanup plan, Grace pleaded guilty to two felony counts of lying to the Government about what occurred, and also Beatrice's lawyers were judged to have actually involved in misconduct.

Mr. Harr, a professional writer, grants the litigation masterly treatment. He chronicles years of legal twists and also turns in a manner that is thoughtful and also never difficult to follow. "A Civil Action" employs a mild variation of the novelized you-are-there format, presenting within quotation marks countless passeras that are reconstructions fairly than authentic quotations. This should strike readers as a reasonable usage of the discussed novelization technique, because apparently Mr. Harr has actually not taken liberty through the recomprised quotations. The quality and thoroughness of Mr. Harr's presentation make "A Civil Action" a book that is most likely to have broad appeal to readers interested in the law or courtroom tactics.

To tell the story of the Woburn lawsuit, Mr. Harr concentrates on Jan Schlichtmann, a Boston lawyer that devoted years of exhausting initiative to compiling proof that the miscellaneous situations of leukemia were linked. At some point Mr. Schlichtmann won about $8 million from Grace for the injured households, but after trial and also investigation prices were deducted from his share, he was left via so little that he declared personal bankruptcy. His law exercise fell down, and his auto was repossessed. Mr. Schlichtmann triumphed on principle yet lost on money, while Grace and also Beatrice subverted principle however did well financially, proceeding to rack up profits throughout the years their lawyers blithely denied the harm the providers had actually done. One chilling moment in "A Civil Action" -- chilling because it represents a mundane occasion in corpoprice regulation -- comes as soon as a Beatrice attorney composes a legal filing formally denying that barrels of toxic waste exist, though days prior to the lawyer "had actually seen the barrels with his very own eyes."

"A Civil Action" is many compelling as soon as it demonstprices the absurd, lot terylike environment in which individual injury suits are carried out. Because lawyers for the plaintiffs in such situations are usually passist on a contingency basis, Mr. Schlichtmann's firm was at hazard. With only restricted funding, it squared off versus two corpoprice giants whose access to funds to support legal stalling tactics was basically infinite. Mr. Harr details the numerous dilatory or counterstrike activities Beatrice and also Grace filed that were designed to run up the plaintiffs' expenses till their spirit broke. The companies even moved to discrmodify Mr. Schlichtmann professionally, according to Mr. Harr, attacking his regulation license and later on supplying to sheight if he would walk ameans from the instance.

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As the situation dragged on, Mr. Schlichtmann's firm took out loans to store itself afloat, till bankers would certainly extend no more crmodify. A sad however funny scene occurs once one of Mr. Schlichtmann's colleagues discovers a Krugerrand in an office drawer and rushes the coin to a financial institution to make a loan payment, briefly postponing a foreclocertain activity. Lawyers for Beatrice and Grace wanted to pressure Mr. Schlichtmann to settle before the trial; a pretrial settlement would have actually retained Mr. Schlichtmann in service but maybe would have actually sold the interests of the households brief. Hence comes a moment of pure courage when Mr. Schlichtmann turns down a pretrial settlement sell of about $4 million from Beatrice. Later the jury abfixed Beatrice of licapacity.

The jury did find Grace liable, but an additional round of testimony would certainly have been forced prior to damages could be awarded. Mr. Schlichtmann was so strapped that he had actually bit alternative yet to take whatever Grace dangled. As quickly as the $8 million from Grace went into the settlement fund, various other lawyers appeared to file clintends on Mr. Schlichtmann's share. Then proof turned up arguing Beatrice might actually be at fault. Mr. Schlichtmann spent many type of months in an uneffective attempt to reopen the case, and also for that extra initiative earned nothing.

By the end, "A Civil Action" shows that the compensation the Woburn households got was established mostly by random legal quirks and the characters of the lawyers and judges connected. The book leaves one wondering: Is this any type of method for culture to resolve its disputes? It additionally leaves one wondering around existing proposals in Congress that would sharply lower the awards plaintiffs deserve to win for individual injury. Though in recent years juries have actually periodically conferred extreme awards, it is crucial to bear in mind that in any kind of contest in between individual injury lawyers and corporations, the corporate side holds what is by far the the majority of necessary benefit, namely the funds through which to finance a stall defense.

GOOD as it is, "A Civil Action" fchanges by presenting the Woburn instance in a one-dimensional, made-for-the-movies way. Mr. Harr does not overdramatize individual scenes, yet he does depict a people containing three types of people: innocent victims, lonely crusaders and also the malignant pawns of the corpoprice state. Mr. Schlichtmann is described as a pushed kid of the 60's who concerns covet the Dmitri suits and Porsche 928's that the big-boy lawyers have actually, and also yet never before forgets that legislation is the search of justice. By the end of "A Civil Action," he has virtually propelled himself to madness by demanding justice -- if this were a movie, the character would have "ideal actor nomination" composed almost everywhere it. "A Civil Action" presents Mr. Schlichtmann as locked in a Manichaean battle through Jerome Facher, a companion in the blue-blood Boston firm Hale & Dorr and also counsel to Beatrice. Mr. Facher is shown as intelligent, meticulous and bereft of human feeling -- the sort of lawyer that long earlier traded his soul for the riches that come with being willing to execute or say anything a corpoprice client wants.

Setting these excellent and also evil individualities versus each various other provides the book a smooth flow, through the simplified narrative important to translate into a movie, yet disrupts the informing of the Woburn story. To keep his structure, Mr. Harr minimizes the participation of the Environpsychological Protection Agency, the USA Attorney's office and also miscellaneous Massachusetts state agencies. Mr. Schlichtmann was not a lone crusader: it was the E.P.A. and the Department of Justice that lowered the boom on W. R. Grace. But existing convention has it that all Government officials are drones or sellouts, so the Federal function at Woburn is reduced. Nonetheless, "A Civil Action" is a consequential work-related, one deserving of attention.


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