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A Civil Action

3.89 of 5 stars 3.89  ·  rating details  ·  9,585 ratings  ·  581 reviews
"The legal thriller of the decade." --Cleveland Plain Dealer

Now a Major Motion Picture!

In this true story of an epic courtroom showdown, two of the nation's largest corporations stand accused of causing the deaths of children. Representing the bereaved parents, the unlikeliest of heroes emerges: a young, flamboyant Porsche-driving lawyer who hopes to win millions of dollar
Paperback, 512 pages
Published August 27th 1996 by Vintage (first published 1995)
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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. RowlingTwilight by Stephenie MeyerHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. RowlingThe Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The BOOK was BETTER than the MOVIE
410th out of 1,277 books — 17,074 voters
The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonFreakonomics by Steven D. LevittIn Cold Blood by Truman CapoteA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Best Non-Fiction (non biography)
242nd out of 3,122 books — 5,069 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Aric Cushing
A frightening look at how the legal system can be completely biased, self-serving, and how one judge can destroy the lives of so many - not to mention the Court of Appeals holding up inadequate, ridiculous decisions all based on res judicata. For anyone wanting to be a lawyer, or who is currently a lawyer, this book resonates. Incredibly well researched by the author. You think the novel is going to end with a Hurrah!, but instead goes a completely different way, inevitably questioning how long ...more
Moira Russell
Amazingly reported and beautifully written. Should be required reading, not just in law schools, but all schools, period.

(Best GR review I saw: I have friends who live in Woburn; I think I'll drink bottled water when I go visit.)
An inside look at the case that made Jan Schlictmann famous: unscrupulous corporations poisoning the ground water supply, causing deaths and illness in the local community, and working to cover it up. Really sheds light on the adverse effects of litigation on plaintiffs' attorneys (as opposed to Class Action, which sheds light on the adverse effects of litigation on plainitffs). You really have to be able to disconnect and balance, or else a case can eat you alive. And no matter how right you ar ...more
Bonnie E.
I'm in the business. This was an accurate and well written book about an actual case, with its myriad twists and turns. Harr presents the events like it's a suspense/ mystery novel but the book is all the more fascinating because it's a true story.
Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!

After the first couple of pages, the book took off and held me on the edge of the seat right through to the end. It's not very often that I read into the wee hours of the morning to finish a book, but this one grabbed and held me through and through. There was just no way I was going to turn out the light and roll over.

So this book was exciting and emotional. At times I couldn't believe that such events were happening here in the US in ordinary towns. I was angry
This is the true story of a nine year legal battle involving flamboyant, obsessed and ambitious lawyer, Jan Schlictmann, and two large corporations accused of exposing a cluster of mostly children to water contaminated by industrial pollution. The town is Woburn, Massachusetts. The time is the 1970's. Children are dying from leukemia. Fast forward to the late 80's and early 90's when Schlictman and his crew try to find a link between very sick and dying people and the dumping of toxic waste whic ...more
Frank Stein

An amazing book that opens a window on the world of civil lawsuits.

The book concerns a leukemia "cancer cluster" of half a dozen children that popped up in the mid-1970s, in Woburn, Massachusetts, about half an hour North of Boston. Besides the cancers, the children and their families also developed a host of strange ailments: rashes, fatigue, headaches, constant nausea. After some tests it was proved that two wells that were pumping Woburn's water were infested with trichloroethylene (TCE), and
This non-fiction book was masterfully written and hard to put down. The case is about polluted wells in the city of Woburn, MA. Residents complain about the smell and taste of the water and are continually told that there is nothing wrong. But children are diagnosed with leukemia and start dying. Enter lawyer Jan Schlichtmann who accepts the case of eight families. I kept reading, expecting the victims to be vindicated as evidence as to criminal negligence keeps piling up. The lawyer, however, i ...more
Nov 25, 2008 Callista rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Callista by: Carol
Shelves: nonfiction
A really compelling read. I learned a lot about civil law and class action lawsuits.
This book is a tremendous read. What impressed me the most wasn't the author's development of Schlichtmann's character (both his magnetism and profound agony come right off the page, occasionally at the same time) but his devotion to documenting the case as it happened over the course of many years. It must have been quite a labor considering the scope and duration of the case.

It's an eye opening account to the flaws in our legal system, especially the autonomy afforded to our courts - they see
One of my best nonfiction reads, this book told of a real life courtroom drama pitting one aspiring lawyer against a coterie of company lawyers. The case was about the accountability of two large companies who dumped toxic wastes that contaminated the water source of the nearby community. It led to the deaths of children who became sick with cancer after exposure to said pollution.

The ensuing protracted legal battle was very frustrating, nail-biting, dramatic, suspenseful, and engaging. It’s lik
Lisa (Harmonybites)
This is the story of a "civil action"--that is a law suit, a "tort" where a corporation was sued for dumping toxic wastes purportedly causing cancer among the residents of Woburn Massachusetts. Harr was definitely not even-handed. This is told primarily from the point of view of the plaintiff's lawyer, Jan Schlictman, and of course readers are going to identify with the ordinary people, not the rich corporations. But at least Harr didn't go entirely Erin Brokovich, but did present the reasons th ...more
Outstanding work! 500 pages read like one. Could not put it down!
Nathan Slauer
Author Jonathan Harr details the case of Anderson v. Cryovac, a famous water contamination case, in A Civil Action. Harr writes in a relatively fast-paced and an exciting manner, successfully delivering a non-fiction work that, at times, reads more like a thriller than a straightforward account of a legal case. Unfortunately, while Harr’s writing style may make for easy reading, his message in A Civil Action is ultimately harmful as it seemingly discourages average people from getting involved w ...more
Jun 20, 2009 Gary rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: law
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
This was a fast, entertaining/enraging read, until the last 100 pages, when it turned into a guide on how not to litigate. The reader comes away thinking two things: 1. corporations are evil and will stop at nothing to make a profit, even if it means murdering hundreds or thousands of little children. 2. The lawyer for the victims is a very, very stupid man. He blew every chance, didn't follow up on any evidence, didn't act promptly, didn't file the appropriate motins, didn't realize the signifi ...more
Well-written non-fiction/memoir of a plaintiff firm's unrelenting pursuit of justice---or at least a really big payoff. The true story of a bunch of partners who take out second mortgages on their houses and hock their prized possessions in order to keep their case afloat is incredible. The men are daring, or foolhardy, but they are so convinced of their position that they cannot be objective about the risks.

The book is better than the movie. Hope I didn't spoil it for you!

Being a defense atto
Manny Santiago
The choice book that i am reading is titled, "A Civil Action" which is by the author, Jonathan Harr. This book is about a mystery case of the sickness that is going around infecting people in Woburn. The sickness case was revealed as Leukemia, which is Cancer, and some people are very concerned about this case. Some people think that the cause of the sickness is caused by the water from the wells in Woburn. There were resources that the water could turn out to be unsafe and uncleaned, especially ...more
Nathaniel Spinney
A depressing story of injustice and lies and liars. I want to be a lawyer, and I want to be a good lawyer, and I want the best for my clients if/when I may have clients, but I justice to be served. This book had me thrilled until the very end when time after time justice and a sense of right was ignored. I try to look at the judgement in an unbiased manner and I feel like I can, but I still feel a bubble of fury. Just a gross display. I wish the outcome were better, I wish the system caught the ...more
Mayor McCheese
This was of course required reading in law school and probably the best overall book a prospective law student could read to prepare for the first year curriculum or at least for the mandatory civil procedure class, along with Founding Brothers and Miracle at Philadelphia which give a great lay understanding of the basics of the constitution. The book would get five stars if the author weren't so self-important, which seems inevitable of most law-trained individuals (to sound self-important). Gr ...more
Krista's review: This non-fiction book was masterfully written and hard to put down. The case is about polluted wells in the city of Woburn, MA. Residents complain about the smell and taste of the water and are continually told that there is nothing wrong. But children are diagnosed with leukemia and start dying. Enter lawyer Jan Schlichtmann who accepts the case of eight families. I kept reading, expecting the victims to be vindicated as evidence as to criminal negligence keeps piling up. The l ...more

There is no doubt the case covered by Harr has many heavily weighted topics, including the fairness of the judicial system in addition to the environmental problems, which are brought to the table in an engaging manner. The thought of muddling through political and scientific jargon isn’t the best saught after way to spend a lazy afternoon, and Harr manages to tell the story in a way that seems more fiction than non, much like the playful seriousness which fill the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird
Well-paced and compelling for a non-fiction account of a mass tort action. I really felt for the unpolished young plaintiffs' attorney and enjoyed reading about his rough practice-by-instinct, which is so different from the many layers of dilution that go into a junior lawyer's practice at a big firm. Given the unstoppable trajectory of the storytelling and the protagonist's huge, passionate efforts, I found the ending disappointing and lacking in denouement. Still a very good read.
This book intrigued me because 1) I enjoyed learning about the work of Erin Brockovich, and this sounded like a similar premise; and 2) my cousin was reading it for her Business Law class so I figured we could discuss it over Thanksgiving. While option #2 is still out there, I wouldn't recommend it for people who had the same hopes I did with option #1. Primarily, it is because the book focuses so strongly on the court case to prove that 2 large companies polluted the water supply of East Woburn ...more

When I started reading this book I realized I must have seen the movie, although all I was left with was impressions rather than actual recall of the movie. My husband reminded me that John Travolta had starred in the movie, which I didn't remember and seemed like a mis-cast to me, but my husband said he was very good in the movie.
So I am reading this book, slogging through it more like, I didn't find it entertaining, I found it remarkably painful. When I finished reading Jan Schlichtmann's summ
This was a great read. True story of a lawsuit against two companies charged with polluting the local water supply in a Boston suburb which led to several children dying of leukemia. The author was behind the scenes with the lawyers during the entire trial and aftermath which provides a very very detailed view of the entire case. It was very engrossing and engaging. I couldn't put it down.
Jeannie Long
A horrible true story about what happens when toxic waste is not disposed of properly. In Woburn, Massachusetts in the 1960’s, two companies contaminated wells with toxic chemicals and people suffered severe health effects, including a number of child deaths from leukemia.

It’s a fascinating account of how the legal system works, but disappointing in how it fails to deliver appropriate punishment in the end. The time and cost involved during the legal process ends up bankrupting the law firm repr
Re Heubel
Excellent book. Demonstrates how the legal system is stacked in favor of corporations, who can hire dozens of lawyers and stall / delay by endless legal manuevering until - years later - any court decision is made. For the trial and discovery, the science of groundwater pollution is pretty complex and interesting. Heartbreaking are the stories of the people of Woburn MA whose water was poisoned, knowingly, by Grace company for years. One moral of the book for me is that most corporations are imm ...more
Marty Taylor
I picked this up by chance, rummaging through a Goodwill book shelf. I knew nothing about it, although I thought I remembered hearing about a movie with the same name. I started reading it a few weeks later and became immediately engrossed with this story. I've read numerous books that I would describe as "page-turners", but none of them centered around complicated legal proceedings, so this is a first for me.

This was very well written, well documented and completely riveting. Sadly, it is also
Luke Watson-sharer
Luke Watson-Sharer
Stream Red

A Civil Action
by Jonathan Harr

A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr, is a complicated legal, environmental and family non-fiction story. I wanted to read non-fiction that was also a movie. After reading the introduction, I decided to select the book. I do not know anything about lawyers and lawsuits so this book was an introduction to their world. I expected the story to take place in a courtroom but that was only one of the settings. The story showed how a group of fam
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Jonathan Harr is an American writer, best known for A Civil Action.
Harr was born in Beloit, Wisconsin. His sister, Cynthia Lauwers, lives in North Andover, Massachusetts. He 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. Har
More about Jonathan Harr...
The Lost Painting Funeral Wars: How Lawyer Willie Gary Turned a Petty Dispute About Coffins into a Multi-million Dolla No Safe Place: Toxic Waste, Leukemia, and Community Action A Documentary Companion to a Civil Action: With Notes, Comments and Questions

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“Rich and famous and doing good," mused Schlichtmann. "Rich isn't so difficult. Famous isn't so difficult. Rich and famous together aren't so difficult. Rich, famous, and doing good--now, that's very difficult.” 9 likes
“Truth is found at the bottom of a bottomless pit." Jerome Facher - A Civil Action.” 1 likes
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