A Civil Action: A Real-Life Legal Thriller

Overview

The lawyer had not wanted the case at first -- it was too big, too complicated, too risky. It concerned a cluster of childhood leukemia victims in a small town north of Boston where the city wells had been poisoned by industrial chemicals. Two of the nation's largest corporations, each with a plant near the wells, stood accused. Against his better judgment, the lawyer found himself drawn into the case. In this book, you'll meet the Harvard Law professor who told the lawyer that this case was worth a billion ...
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Overview

The lawyer had not wanted the case at first -- it was too big, too complicated, too risky. It concerned a cluster of childhood leukemia victims in a small town north of Boston where the city wells had been poisoned by industrial chemicals. Two of the nation's largest corporations, each with a plant near the wells, stood accused. Against his better judgment, the lawyer found himself drawn into the case. In this book, you'll meet the Harvard Law professor who told the lawyer that this case was worth a billion dollars, that it was the sort of lawsuit that would ring the alarm in corporate boardrooms across America. And you'll meet his adversaries, foremost among them a crafty old trial lawyer, chairman of the litigation department at one of the biggest and most feared law firms in Boston. The case turned into an epic struggle that took nine years of the lawyer's life. At the heart of the legal system, he was confronted by powerful and well-connected interests who would do anything to win. In the end, the struggle nearly cost the lawyer his sanity. He sacrificed everything -- home, friends, and reputation -- not for money, but for what he believed to be the truth.
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Editorial Reviews

Randall Short
This book "chronicles a lawsuit brought in 1986 by eight families in Woburn, Massachusetts, against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. The plaintiffs charged that toxic waste on properties owned by the giant corporations had infiltrated town drinking water and caused an outbreak of leukemia." —Time Magazine
Library Journal
In the 1970s, it became painfully apparent that the town of Woburn, MA, was the site of a leukemia cluster. No one, however, initially linked the illness to the water supply or to the chemicals dumped there by the town's two largest corporations. As determined parents began to delve into the cause of their childrens' deaths, they found legal help in the form of the self-assured, no-holds-barred Jan Schlichtmann. What began as a pesky assignment for Schlichtmann becomes a compelling and intricate web of justice, money, big business, and emotion underscored by the notion that this could happen anywhere. Harr's skillful empathy in bringing the listener along on this roller coaster of emotion is enhanced by Alan Sklar's smooth handling of the many legal and medical terms. This best seller will be popular everywhere, even in this lengthy unabridged format. [The recent feature film starring John Travolta received critical acclaim.--Ed.]--Susan McCaffrey, Haslett H.S., MI Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Gilbert Taylor
Eyeing readers who flock to fictionalized courtroom drama, Harr bets that dramatized nonfiction can compete for their attention. The case he selected, the standard cancer-caused-by-chemicals charge, is less about the validity of the suit than about the snarling courtroom combat between lawyers. While he spoke with both sides, he spoke most with the plaintiffs' maniacally energetic lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who took on the case of families who blamed their leukemia tragedies on city water polluted by two deep pockets, W. R. Grace and the Beatrice Corp., whose experienced trial attorneys usually appear in the narrative whenever Schlichtmann meets them while handling the business of the trial. Schlichtmann is definitely, and defiantly, a high-wire act, as he rejects offer after offer even as his creditors crowd closer to his accountant. Drawn as vividly as a character in a mystery novel, Harr's hero walks the precipice of bankruptcy, pushed toward the edge and pulled back by a carnival of forces, not the least his own ambition and brashness. Entertaining insight to litigation that any law-minded reader will follow from first filing to last appeal.
Randall Short
This book "chronicles a lawsuit brought in 1986 by eight families in Woburn, Massachusetts, against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. The plaintiffs charged that toxic waste on properties owned by the giant corporations had infiltrated town drinking water and caused an outbreak of leukemia."
-- Time Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780394563497
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/29/1995
  • Pages: 500
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Harr lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he has taught nonfiction writing at Smith College. He is a former staff writer at New England Monthly and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine.
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Read an Excerpt


At the intersection of Center Valley Road and South Beach Drive Ishmael spied, ahead of him in the bend, a car that had failed to negotiate the grade as it coiled around a grove of snow-hung cedars. Ishmael recognized it as the Willys station wagon that belonged to Fujiko and Hisao Imada; in fact, Hisao was working with a shovel at its rear right wheel, which had dropped into the roadside drainage ditch.

Hisao Imada was small enough most of the time, but he looked even smaller bundled up in his winter clothes, his hat pulled low and his scarf across his chin so that only his mouth, nose, and eyes showed. Ishmael knew he would not ask for help, in part because San Piedro people never did, in part because such was his character. Ishmael decided to park at the bottom of the grade beside Gordon Ostrom's mailbox and walk the fifty yards up South Beach Drive, keeping his DeSoto well out of the road while he convinced Hisao Imada to accept a ride from him.

Ishmael had known Hisao a long time. When he was eight years old he'd seen the Japanese man trudging along behind his swaybacked white plow horse: a Japanese man who carried a machete at his belt in order to cut down vine maples. His family lived in two canvas tents while they cleared their newly purchased property. They drew water from a feeder creek and warmed themselves at a slash pile kept burning by his children--girls in rubber boots, including Hatsue--who dragged branches and brought armfuls of brush to it. Hisao was lean and tough and worked methodically, never altering his pace. He wore a shoulder strap T-shirt, and this, coupled with the sharp-honed weapon at his belt, put Ishmael in mind of the pirates he'dread about in illustrated books his father had brought him from the Amity Harbor Public Library. But all of this was more than twenty years ago now, so that as he approached Hisao Imada in the South Beach Drive, Ishmael saw the man in another light: hapless, small in the storm, numb with the cold and ineffective with his shovel while the trees threatened to come down around him.

Ishmael saw something else, too. On the far side of the car, with her own shovel in hand, Hatsue worked without looking up. She was digging through the snow to the black earth of the cedar woods and throwing spadefuls of it underneath the tires.

Fifteen minutes later the three of them walked down the road toward his DeSoto. The Willys station wagon's rear right tire had been perforated by a fallen branch still wedged up under both axles. The rear length of exhaust pipe had been crushed, too. The car wasn't going anywhere--Ishmael could see that--but it took Hisao some time to accept this truth. With his shovel he'd struggled defiantly, as if the tool could indeed change the car's fate. After ten minutes of polite assistance Ishmael wondered aloud if his DeSoto wasn't the answer and persisted in this vein for five minutes more before Hisao yielded to it as an unavoidable evil. He opened his car door, put in his shovel, and came out with a bag of groceries and a gallon of kerosene. Hatsue, for her part, went on with her digging, saying nothing and keeping to the far side of the car, and throwing black earth beneath the tires.

At last her father rounded the Willys and spoke to her once in Japanese. She stopped her work and came into the road then, and Ishmael was granted a good look at her. He had spoken to her only the morning before in the second-floor hallway of the Island County Courthouse, where she'd sat on a bench with her back to an arched window just outside the assessor's office. Her hair had been woven then, as now, into a black knot against the nape of her neck. She'd told him four times to go away.

"Hello, Hatsue," said Ishmael. "I can give you a lift home, if you want."

"My father says he's accepted," Hatsue replied. "He says he's grateful for your help."

She followed her father and Ishmael down the hill, still carrying her shovel, to the DeSoto. When they were well on their way down South Beach Drive, easing through the flats along the salt water, Hisao explained in broken English that his daughter was staying with him during the trial; Ishmael could drop them at his house. Then he described how a branch had hurled down into the road in front of him; to avoid it he'd hit his brake pedal. The Willys had fishtailed while it climbed the snapped branch and nudged down into the drainage ditch.

Only once, driving and listening, nodding politely and inserting small exclamations of interest--"I see, I see, yes, of course, I can understand"--did Ishmael risk looking at Hatsue Miyamoto in the rectangle of his rearview mirror: a risk that filled all of two seconds. He saw then that she was staring out the side window with enormous deliberation, with intense concentration on the world outside his car--she was making it a point to be absorbed by the storm--and that her black hair was wringing wet with snow. Two strands had escaped from their immaculate arrangement and lay pasted against her frozen cheek.

"I know it's caused you trouble," Ishmael said. "But don't you think the snow is beautiful? Isn't it beautiful coming down?"

The boughs in the fir trees hung heavy with it, the fence rails and mailboxes wore mantles of it, the road before him lay filled with it, and there was no sign, anywhere, of people. Hisao Imada agreed that it was so--ah, yes, beautiful, he commented softly--and at the same moment his daughter turned swiftly forward so that her eyes met Ishmael's in the mirror. It was the cryptic look, he recognized, that she'd aimed at him fleetingly on the second floor of the courthouse when he'd tried to speak to her before her husband's trial. Ishmael still could not read what her eyes meant--punishment, sorrow, perhaps buried anger, perhaps all three simultaneously. Perhaps some sort of disappointment.

For the life of him, after all these years, he couldn't read the expression on her face. If Hisao wasn't present, he told himself, he'd ask her flat out what she was trying to say by looking at him with such detached severity and saying nothing at all. What, after all, had he done to her? What had she to be angry about? The anger, he thought, ought to be his own; yet years ago now the anger about her had finished gradually bleeding out of him and had slowly dried up and blown away. Nothing had replaced it, either. He had not found anything to take its place. When he saw her, as he sometimes did, in the aisles of Petersen's Grocery or on the street in Amity Harbor, he turned away from seeing her with just a little less hurry than she turned away from seeing him; they avoided one another rigorously. It had come to him one day three years before how immersed she was in her own existence. She'd knelt in front of Fisk's Hardware Center tying her daughter's shoelaces in bows, her purse on the sidewalk beside her. She hadn't known he was watching. He'd seen her kneeling and working on her daughter's shoes, and it had come to him what her life was. She was a married woman with children. She slept in the same bed every night with Kabuo Miyamoto. He had taught himself to forget as best he could. The only thing left was a vague sense of waiting for Hatsue--a fantasy--to return to him. How, exactly, this might be achieved he could not begin to imagine, but he could not keep himself from feeling that he was waiting and that these years were only an interim between other years he had passed and would pass again with Hatsue.

She spoke now, from the backseat, having turned again to look out the window. "Your newspaper," she said. That was all.

"Yes," answered Ishmael. "I'm listening."

"The trial, Kabuo's trial, is unfair," said Hatsue. "You should talk about that in your newspaper."

"What's unfair?" asked Ishmael. "What exactly is unfair? I'll be happy to write about it if you'll tell me."

She was still staring out the window at the snow with strands of wet hair pasted against her cheek. "It's all unfair," she told him bitterly. "Kabuo didn't kill anyone. It isn't in his heart to kill anyone. They brought in that sergeant to say he's a killer--that was just prejudice. Did you hear the things that man was saying? How Kabuo had it in his heart to kill? How horrible he is, a killer? Put it in your paper, about that man's testimony, how all of it was unfair. How the whole trial is unfair."

"I understand what you mean," answered Ishmael. "But I'm not a legal expert. I don't know if the judge should have suppressed Sergeant Maples's testimony. But I hope the jury comes in with the right verdict. I could write a column about that, maybe. How we all hope the justice system does its job. How we hope for an honest result."

"There shouldn't even be a trial," said Hatsue. "The whole thing is wrong, it's wrong"

"I'm bothered, too, when things are unfair," Ishmael said to her. "But sometimes I wonder if unfairness isn't . . . part of things. I wonder if we should even expect fairness, if we should assume we have some sort of right to it. Or if--"

"I'm not talking about the whole universe," cut in Hatsue. "I'm talking about people--the sheriff, that prosecutor, the judge, you. People who can do things because they run newspapers or arrest people or convict them or decide about their lives. People don't have to be unfair, do they? That isn't just part of things, when people are unfair to somebody."

"No, it isn't," Ishmael replied coldly. "You're right--people don't have to be unfair."

When he let them out beside the Imadas' mailbox he felt that somehow he had gained the upper hand--he had an emotional advantage. He had spoken with her and she had spoken back, wanting something from him. She'd volunteered a desire. The strain between them, the hostility he felt--it was better than nothing, he decided. It was an emotion of some sort they shared. He sat in the DeSoto and watched Hatsue trudge away through the falling snow, carrying her shovel on her shoulder. It occurred to him that her husband was going out of her life in the same way he himself once had. There had been circumstances then and there were circumstances now; there were things beyond anyone's control. Neither he nor Hatsue had wanted the war to come--neither of them had wanted that intrusion. But now her husband was accused of murder, and that changed things between them.
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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, December 21st, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Jonathan Harr to discuss A CIVIL ACTION.


Moderator: Welcome, Jonathan Harr! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening. How are you doing tonight?

Jonathan Harr: I'm doing fine, looking forward to this chat.


Korby from Marlboro, MA: What is your relationship like these days with Schlichtmann?

Jonathan Harr: I don't see him that much, but we talk all the time, especially now that the movie is about to come out. During the case -- and while I was writing the book -- I regarded him as a subject of my scrutiny, which perhaps sounds cold and clinical but is nonetheless true. Since the book's publication, I've relaxed a bit, and we've become friends. I should add that I consider myself friendly with just about everyone I wrote about, the possible exception being Judge Skinner. I certainly bear the judge no animus; but we haven't communicated since the book came out.


Pac87@aol.com from xx: Have you seen the movie version yet? How involved were you with the movie project?

Jonathan Harr: I saw an early cut of the movie last July, and two weeks ago, in L.A., saw the final cut three times in four days. I think Steve Zaillian did a superb job with complicated and difficult material. I honestly think it's a great movie. I had no formal involvement in making it, although I met Steve and we became friends before he started working on the screenplay (he both wrote and directed), and he sent me each draft of the screenplay. We'd talk about the screenplays, but I never wrote a word. I also spent time on the movie set, simply because I was curious, and it's a seductive business -- cameras, lights, movie stars, et cetera. And watching other people work is a lot easier than writing.


Stefano from Woburn, MA: I would like to ask Mr. Harr if he has received any backlash from the court system for his depiction of Judge Skinner and the inadequacies of system. Also, have there been responses that support the view of the system as portrayed in the book, whether they be from professionals in the legal world or from ordinary people? Being from Woburn and attending Suffolk Law School, I have a special interest in this case that has touched the lives of some of my close friends, and this story, which reads like a Greek tragedy, is the greatest piece of nonfiction that I have ever read. Both Jan and Mr. Harr have opened a window into the dark courtrooms of America and have allowed the general public to examine the system which was created to protect them. Unfortunately, this time the system failed. Thank you, Mr. Harr, for a wonderful book that has opened many eyes to the injustices of the justice system.

Jonathan Harr: I'm unaware of any backlash, although God knows, something might be afoot in some quarter. Actually, the reception from the legal community has been very gratifying. It seems that many law schools are using the book in Torts, Civil Procedure, Ethics, Trial Practice, et cetera. I gave a talk at Yale Law School last week, and I'm asked frequently by state bar associations to talk. I've been doing a fair amount of it, but the more I do it, the more I feel writers (this one, at least) should stick to writing and not speaking. I made a conscious effort in writing the book to avoid the authorial voice and pontification. I wanted readers to come to their own conclusions. Thanks for your kind words, by the way.


Cindy from Longmeadow, MA: Do you feel there was justice served by the outcome of this case to both W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods? Is there still any pending litigation? It will be interesting to see if the movie follows the facts -- especially regarding the verdict. Hollywood tends to like happy endings!

Jonathan Harr: Was justice served? That's a complicated question to which I usually give a long answer. The short answer: In part yes, in part no. The Woburn families, after all, did get their case into the courtroom, and there are few countries on this planet where that would have happened. And they got a substantial sum of money (although no sum could possibly compensate a mother for her child). But the system also failed, miserably in my opinion, when suppression and misconduct was brought to the surface by Schlichtmann and then both the judge and the appeals court shrugged their shoulders, so to speak. The movie follows closely the arc of the story as I saw it and depicted it in the book. Hollywood does like happy endings, but Steve Zaillian doesn't.


Kara from Washington, D.C.: I know you probably have no say in this, but why John Travolta? He seems to be an odd choice for the role.

Jonathan Harr: As Jan Schlichtmann would say: Better John Travolta than Danny DeVito. Actually, John's a good choice; he can play the selfish rogue and yet you can see compassion beneath the surface. Check him out in this movie -- he really is good. I think he deserves an Oscar, although Duvall is getting the attention; he got nominated for best supporting actor for the Golden Globes.


John from Rhode Island: What are you now working on? Is a second novel easier?

Jonathan Harr: I'm working on a New Yorker story, due last June, I think. I have lots of ideas for another book, but ideas are cheap. I'm looking specifically at medical research and hope to have something underway by March. Will the second one be easier? I don't know, but the learning curve on the first was sure steep.


Kevin from Baltimore, MD: Mr. Harr, reading this book was like reading a legal thriller. Do you read a lot of legal fiction? Who are some of your favorites?

Jonathan Harr: I read Scott Turow's first book, PRESUMED INNOCENT, which I thought was superb; I've read a few of John Grisham's.... That's about it for legal fiction.


Eugene Chung from Cobb County, GA: Why do you think America loves reading courtroom dramas? What is it about the lawyer that is so unpopular in real life, but is extremely popular in book form?

Jonathan Harr: Courtroom dramas are perfect narratives. All narratives require conflict and resolution, and a case -- a lawsuit -- by its nature has both.


Steve Trapnell from Lancaster, PA: I am a writer myself, and I am curious about how you tracked and compiled the information for this book over such a long time. Did you record conversations? Take notes and then confirm them with participants later? How much access did you have to the people you wrote about, and how accommodating were they?

Jonathan Harr: I don't use a tape recorder. I find you get too much dross, and transcribing them is incredibly laborious (and I didn't have enough money to pay for transcription). I take notes on a reporter's notebook, and I try to type up those notes every evening. I write fast, using my own shorthand. I'm scared of tape recorders anyhow; I'm always afraid the battery will die or I'll flip the tape over and record over what I just recorded. I got great access from Schlichtmann and his firm and the Woburn families. Jerry Facher was quite open, too; so was Bill Cheeseman, personally, but he was hamstrung by his client, W. R. Grace, to an extent that Facher was not. I describe briefly in the endnotes of the book how I went about reporting. For the most part, everyone was accommodating. In 20 years of reporting, I'm always surprised by that. But in my experience, people generally like to talk about what they do and about themselves if they've got a genuinely interested listener


Mike from Santa Clara, CA: I want to express my satisfaction with this book. I thought A CIVIL ACTION was a well-written account of something all too common in America. What are your thoughts on this matter? Do you think this type of case happens too often (maybe not of equal magnitude) in this country?

Jonathan Harr: My first thought is gratitude that you found the book worth your while.... On the matter of environmental contamination in America, it is altogether too common, I've learned. I've gotten calls from people from Seattle to Miami, from L.A. to Maine, who've got problems similar to those in Woburn. My heart goes out to them; some of their stories are incredibly poignant and full of desperation for a remedy. On balance, I think the courts are not the place where we'll find solutions. That will come with an increased awareness of the fact that without clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, we cannot exist as a society.


Gil from Ft. Collins, CO: Are there any regrets, or things long after the book has been published that you would change or switch in your book?

Jonathan Harr: I wish that Judge Skinner could have found it possible, in one way or another, without violating judicial ethics, to spend time talking to me. Purely from a narrative standpoint, I would have liked to see the world through his eyes. A valuable writing technique is to see one's characters through the eyes of another, and I would have liked to depict Jan Schlichtmann as the judge saw him. For reasons not wholly clear to me the judge felt he couldn't give me that insight. If I'd had it, I think my depiction of him would have been more expansive and perhaps more understanding. I consider him a good judge who, nonetheless, I believe, made a mistake in this case.


Jossie from New York City, NY: In the end, would you say this case was a positive or negative experience for Schlichtmann? How do you think this case changed him as a person?

Jonathan Harr: Overall the case was a horrible experience for him. He lost all his worldly goods (and he did care about that stuff, too!) and his faith in the judicial system that he cared about and believed in. He's experienced sort of a "second coming" with the book and the movie, though. I used to think it had changed him quite dramatically, much for the worse, but I think now it was a spell of clinical depression that seemed to go on for several years. My feeling now is that he's back, the same old Jan -- somewhat older, somewhat wiser, somewhat less willing to gamble everything. He is, however, a truly unique character. In that sense, I was blessed as a writer.


Matt Smith from Tates Creek, KY: What to you are Schlichtmann's best attributes? What about worst?

Jonathan Harr: He's a guy with incredible energy, the sort of person who, when he walks into a room, turns heads. He's smart; he genuinely cares about issues like the environment; he's quite funny; he's generous. He's also unrelentingly persistent, which is both a virtue and a flaw, egotistical, a megalomaniac. What can I say? He's become my friend, and I like him in spite of -- maybe because of -- his flaws as well as his virtues.


Moderator: Thank you, Jonathan Harr! Best of luck with everything. Do you have any closing comments for the online audience?

Jonathan Harr: Only that I enjoyed this quite a bit. I guess I like talking about myself and my work as much as the subjects of my reporting like talking about themselves. My thanks for some provocative questions.


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