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For the film starring John Travolta, see A Civil Action (film)
A Civil Action  
Author Jonathan Harr
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Vintage
Publication date August 27, 1996
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-679-77267-7
OCLC Number 35587711
LC Classification KF228.A667 H37 1996
Followed by The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

A Civil Action is a 1996 non-fiction novel by Jonathan Harr depicting the real-life water contamination case in Woburn, Massachusetts in the 1980s. The book became a best-seller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

The case is Anderson v. Cryovac. The first reported decision in the case is at 96 F.R.D. 431 (denial of defendants' motion to dismiss).

A film by the same name based on the book was produced in 1998, starring John Travolta as Jan Schlichtmann and Robert Duvall as Jerome Facher.

Plot summary

After finding her child is diagnosed with leukemia, Anne Anderson begins to notice a high incidence of leukemia, what should be a relatively rare disease, in her city. Eventually she gathers other families and seeks a lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, to consider their options.

Though Schlichtmann originally agrees to take the case, the lack of evidence and a clear defendant results in it being ignored. Later picking up the case, Schlichtmann finds evidence suggesting trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of the town's water supply by Riley Tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods; a chemical company W.R. Grace; and another company named Unifirst.

In the course of the lawsuit, Schlichtmann gets other attorneys to assist him. He spends lavishly as he had in his prior lawsuits, but the length of the discovery process and trial soon stretch his assets to their limit.

Though Unifirst settles for a little over $1 million, the money is immediately invested in the remaining case against Grace and Beatrice. The plaintiff's case against Grace was far stronger for two reasons: (1) Schlichtmann had personal testimony of a former employee of Grace who had witnessed dumping, and (2) a river between Beatrice's tannery and the contaminated wells made their contribution to the contamination less plausible. The case against Beatrice was dismissed. Though Schlichtmann's firm had anticipated a much higher settlement, the dire state of their finances forced the firm to accept settlement from W.R. Grace for $8 million.

Schlichtmann disbursed the settlement to the families excluding expenses and attorney's fee. When some of the families thought Schlichtmann had overbilled expenses, he acquiesced and surrendered more of his fee. Schlichtmann would later file for bankruptcy after losing his condo and car and living in his office for a time.

A report from the Environmental Protection Agency later concluded that both companies had contaminated the wells based on new evidence from the sludge that had been removed from the site. Schlichtmann attempted in 1988 to reraise the case against Beatrice. The judge dismissed the case, citing testimony from Beatrice's soil chemist.

People involved

Afflicted Families
plaintiffs in lawsuit
  • Anderson, Ann & Charles - son Jimmy (leukemia victim)
  • Aufiero, Richard & Lauren - son Jarrod (leukemia victim)
  • Gamache, Roland (leukemia victim)
  • Kane, Kevin & Patricia - son Kevin Jr. (leukemia victim)
  • Nagle - son (leukemia victim)
  • Robbins, Donna & Carl - son Carl III (Robbie) (leukemia victim)
  • Toomey, Richard & Mary - son Patrick (leukemia victim)
  • Zona, Joan - son Michael (leukemia victim)
(for plaintiffs)
  • Conway, Kevin - worked for Mulligan & Reed, with Jan Schlichtmann
  • Mulligan, Joe - originally took case, passed it to Schlichtmann who was working for M&R at the time.
  • Roisman, Anthony - rep. of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, put funds into case
  • Schlichtmann, Jan - picked up case at M&R, did most of work
  • Nesson, Charlie - Harvard Law professor who worked with them on case, gave advice regarding legal theories, etc.
(for defendants)
  • Cheeseman, William: for Grace. Senior partner at Foley, Hoag, & Eliot.
  • Facher, Jerome (May, 1982): for Beatrice. Chair of litigation at Hale and Dorr. Part-time professor at Harvard Law School.
  • Jacobs, Neil: for Beatrice. Associate at Hale and Dorr.
  • Keating, Michael: for Grace
Jury Members
  • Harriet Clark: church organist, late forties
  • Jean Coulsey: warehouse worker, grandmother
  • Robert Fox: self-employed house painter, around thirty
  • Linda Kaplan: insurance company clerk, young & single
  • O’Rourke, Vincent: ailing postal worker, late fifties
  • Vogel, William: jury foreman, phone company supervisor, early sixties
Medical Expert Witnesses
  • Byers, Dr. Vera: immunologist from CA, expert on tumor immunology
  • Cohen, Dr. Saul: cardiologist, taught at BU School of Med.
  • Coffin, Dr. John: (hired by defense) said TCE would not hurt humans.
  • Colvin, Dr. Robert: Harvard immunopathologist
  • Conibear, Shirley: specialist in occupational and environmental medicine.
  • Feldman, Dr. Robert: chairman of the Dept. of Neurology at BU School of Medicine
  • Levin, Dr. Alan: California immunologist
  • Mudge, Dr. Gilbert Horton: cardiologist, (hired by defense)
  • Paigen, Dr. Beverly: biochemist from Children’s Hospital in Oakland CA
  • Turner, Dr. Bernard: experienced in issues of environmental law.
Scientific Witnesses
  • Drobinski, John: Geologist, compensated by plaintiffs.
  • Pinder, George: (for plaintiff) expert in hydrology and ground water movement
Key Witnesses
from Grace
  • Barbas, Thomas: Grace painter.
  • Forte, Vincent: Grace plant manager.
  • Guswa, John: groundwater expert, glacial morphology
  • Kelly, Frank:
  • Love, Al: Grace receiving clerk.
  • Meola, Joe: maintenance man at Grace plant, denied dumping.
  • Pasqueriella, Robert: Grace electrician
  • Shalline, Paul: Grace worker, disposed of and discharged TCE to the drains.
Key Witnesses
from Beatrice
  • Braids, Olin: soil chemist
  • Mernin, Thomas: Woburn city engineer
  • Palino, Joe: Beatrice worker, lung cancer victim.
  • Riley, John: manager of the Beatrice tannery.
Other Significant Persons
  • Eustis, Albert: executive vice-president and general counsel, Grace
  • Quale, James: representative from Hale & Dorr (Beatrice)
  • Young, Bruce (Reverend, Woburn Trinity Episcopal Church)

See also



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