A Civil Action Summary

Jonathan Harr

A Civil Action

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A Civil Action Summary

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A Civil Action is a nonfiction narrative about a community’s desire to hold several corporations responsible for ill-conceived actions. Though Harr’s narrative reveals just how culpable the corporations are in the conflict, the corporations are also practically impossible to pin a guilty verdict upon due to the nature of litigation and the amount of money these entities can amass. The narrative hones in on this injustice and fleshes out the fight from various points-of-view.

The story takes place in Woburn, Massachusetts. At the outset, children are becoming ill and no one knows what the cause might be. When Anne Anderson’s three-year-old son is subsequently diagnosed with leukemia, she begins vigorously investigating the possible reasons for her son’s illness. What she uncovers is startling: though the town of Woburn is small, Anne finds that there is an outbreak of childhood leukemia plaguing the area. Thus begins both Anne’s and the town residents’ fight to hold the responsible parties accountable.

The reader finds that one of the most prevalent factors for the sickened children is their water source. Their water is sourced from Wells G and H, two sources that have repeatedly been complained about in the past and garnered controversy due to the water’s foul taste, odor and suspicious color. With Anne’s research into her son’s illness and the controversial water sources, the families of the sickened children finally bring a civil suit against two corporations that are linked to the wells in 1981. The first is Beatrice Foods, and the second is Grace Chemical. The civil suit alleges that the companies contaminated Wells G and H with trichloroethylene (TCE), a carcinogen.

The narrative then involves the reader in the general intricacies of litigation and the Woburn civil action suit specifically. Harr explains the terrible history of dumping activities by corporations, and delves into the backgrounds of the corporations themselves in addition to the families involved, thus showing the human aspect of the case. The narrative at this point largely focuses on the point-of-view of the plaintiff’s attorney, Jan Schlichtmann. Jan believes the Woburn case will be a landmark ruling, one that will not only call out corporate greed and dubious ethics, but a case that will propel him to greater heights in the legal world.

As the case unfolds, Jan reveals the legal nightmares that he and the plaintiffs must endure, including the severely long process of just getting from one point to another. The trial is time-consuming, and turns out to be a grossly expensive affair for Jan, though he still maintains hope that the payout for these companies’ negligence will trump the rough road he is facing. He outlines how he spends over two million dollars for various reports and documents to aid the plaintiffs. He also shells the money out for expert witnesses at each phase of the trial. Large companies, however, often have seemingly endless cash flows, and as he is dealing with two companies, finds himself constantly the underdog as these companies employ defense lawyers to successfully thwart his attempts at holding them accountable.

Though the civil suit is meant to hold responsible parties accountable, Jan and the families must ultimately agree on a settlement from Grace Chemical. The settlement is nowhere near as much as Jan thought he would win for the families, but he agrees to settlement so that he can at least give the families something, and to pay some of the legal fees he has amassed from the ordeal. Beatrice Foods was not found guilty, nor did the company settle. Even when Jan found evidence to appeal the decision concerning Beatrice Foods, to actually implicate them in the contamination alongside Grace Chemical, he finds roadblocks impeding him. In the end, the case is nothing like Jan hoped it would be. There is no real justice for the families of the leukemia victims, and the case does not set Jan up for prestige. Instead, the case bankrupts him, and he considers ending both his practice and his life from the fallout.

Ultimately, A Civil Action is a wake-up call for readers that highlights the intricacies of the judicial process. The narrative also shows how easy it is for corporations to weather the storm of bad press and culpability due to their reliance on defense lawyers who can be nothing more than well-paid spin doctors. Harr’s narrative shows how an institution initially created for seeking and revealing the truth has fallen a long way from its origins, and how those at the mercy of this system are often subject to the unfortunate power and prestige of the wealthy yet morally bankrupt.