John Grisham

The Appeal

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The Appeal Summary

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The Appeal (2008) is a legal thriller by American writer John Grisham. It follows a corporation that tries to reverse the court-ordered decision to pay millions of dollars to people who developed cancer after their company dumped toxins in the drinking water. Grisham said the immediate inspiration was the true story of a Mississippi Supreme Court Judge who accepted bribes and changed his decisions according to donor wishes. It is Grisham’s twentieth novel.

Its themes include conniving behavior, the rule of law, blatant corruption, and underhandedness.

The Appeal opens to a jury delivering a verdict for the case Baker V Krane Chemical. Months and months of exhaustive testimony and arguments have passed. The prosecution, Mary Grace and West Payton (owners of a husband-and-wife law firm) and the defendant, a high-powered attorney named Jared Kurtin, rush back to the courtroom.

Mary and West are bringing the case to court on behalf of Jeannette Baker. She lost her husband and young son to cancer induced by the operations of Krane Chemical. The case has lasted five years and physically worn her down; she’s barely 100 pounds. The case has also grinded the Paytons down; they’re currently living in a dilapidated campus apartment and work out of a vermin-infested office.

Mr. Carl Trudeau, the CEO of the corporation that hopes they don’t have to pay millions of dollars to the families of cancer victims, also hurries to his office in New York to hear the verdict. He’s grateful that the verdict will be unveiled on a Friday; if it goes poorly for the firm, at least the negative news won’t impact stock prices. He shows zero concern about the fact that cancer rates in Bowmore have increased 15 times since the company started dumping toxic chemicals in the town’s river supply.

The jury awards Jeannette Baker three million dollars for the wrongful death of her husband and son. Additionally, the jury awards 38 million dollars in punitive damages to send the message to other corporations that they can’t be doing this to people. It’s been clearly demonstrated to them that Krane Chemical allowed carcinogens into the water supply of the small town of Bowmore, Mississippi. Trudeau, who owns billions of dollars’ worth of stock in Krane Chemical, is infuriated. He makes it his personal mission to ensure the punitive money never leaves the company—to even use the court system to somehow make more money—hence, the appeal.

Trudeau knows that unless new judges are installed in the Mississippi Supreme Court, an appeal in favor of Krane Chemical will fail. Since supreme court judges are elected, Trudeau decides to launch a campaign to elect a judge who would vote in favor of Krane Chemical’s appeal. He hires the firm Troy-Hogan (led by the stunningly evil Barry Rinehart) to come up with a perfect lawyer who can defeat the no-nonsense judge currently on the bench, Shelia McCarthy.

Ron Fisk becomes their target. He’s a small-town lawyer, baseball coach, goes to church every weekend, and is perfect for their manipulative plan. Especially with the millions of dollars in campaign contributions that Trudeau can secure, they stand a good chance of winning (or buying) a state supreme court seat.

Fisk is so flattered by the attention that the prestigious Troy-Hogan firm shows him, that he agrees that he should run for a supreme court seat. After all, he’s a “family man” and verifiable conservative, whereas McCarthy’s rulings are less dogmatic, difficult to forecast, and tend to rule in the favor of individuals rather corporations. Trudeau channels thousands of dollars to support his campaign against Shelia McCarthy. He knows the vast majority of voters don’t look that closely into who they’re electing to be their supreme court justice.

While Trudeau works on building Fisk as a candidate for supreme court, he also hires a con-artist/gambler and perpetual drunk, Clete Coley. Clete is brass and off-the-cuff. His role is to distract McCarthy into feeling that this will be an easy campaign for her to win. Troy-Hogan and Trudeau plan that as the election date approaches, Clete will drop out of the race. He will endorse Fisk, thus channeling his more radical followers into supporting Fisk over McCarthy.

While all of this behind-the-scenes corruption is going on, Jeannette Baker is skeptical that she’ll ever live to see a penny of the awarded damages. Even after the victory, she doesn’t change her schedule of visiting the graves of her son and husband each day and living very modestly in her trailer. The other cancer patients are eager to receive the money to increase their well-being and sense of justice. But Trudeau and his legal team successfully keep the payment delayed.

Fisk wins the election. In less than a week, he starts implementing the vision as orchestrated by Trudeau. He starts arguing against “tort” cases, saying that the plaintiffs create a bad model of dealing with grievances and make a mockery of the justice system.

When his own son is left disabled after a medical malpractice case, Fisk has to decide whether he will change his public stance on large settlements against corporations.

He decides that he won’t.

The Appeal then concludes in atypical fashion: the bad guys win, the Paytons and cancer victims receive no money, and Fisk spends the rest of his life trapped in a conniving situation he lacked the courage to stop.