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A Civil Action

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  15,463 ratings  ·  913 reviews
A Civil Action is a non-fiction book by Jonathan Harr about a water contamination case in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the 1980s.

After finding that her child is diagnosed with leukemia, Anne Anderson notices a high prevalence of leukemia, a relatively rare disease, in her city. Eventually she gathers other families and seeks a lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, to consider their opti
Paperback, 512 pages
Published August 27th 1996 by Vintage (first published 1995)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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 ·  15,463 ratings  ·  913 reviews

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Sep 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Litigation – A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.
Ambrose Bierce

I read this book early in my legal career, probably 20 years ago. It's a fascinating, relatively suspenseful account of a modern-day tragedy that offers the truest view of civil litigation, at least in the federal courts.

In Woburn, Massachusetts (not far from Boston) in the 1980s, a cluster (or a particular area with a high incidence) of leukemia developed. Families of the leukemia victims retained t
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
Sep 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
What do large companies (WR Grace & Beatice) think more of: profit -or- the harm their products bring to people? This book (and movie) shows a lawyer fighting a losing battle no matter what happens to him. There are parts hard to read but it is great.

You must see the movie! Cast John Travola, Robert Duvall, William Macy

Ending quotes from the movie
"A Judge Skinner found that John Riley deliberately concealed evidence at the trial. His tannery was torn down in 1990.

W.R. Grace was indicted by the G
Sep 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.)
Nov 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: mystery-suspense
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
Bonnie E.
May 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Frank Stein
Jul 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing

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
Sep 04, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: law-school, awful
I had hoped a good night's sleep would put me in a better frame of mind to review this book, but as just the thought of A Civil Action brings several vulgar adjectives to mind, it doesn't look like my plan worked. Oh well, prepare for the real deal.
My classmates almost universally loved this book; I hated it. It was over-wordy, extremely biased, and sloppy with details. For most of the book, I was ready to give it two stars and call it "excessively dull," but the last hundred pages were too egr
Jun 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
May 29, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
Horace Derwent
Jun 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
a modern american classic of court trial

why is it so classical and pop? i think it's the embodiment of the theme of main vocals and the universal value of the US of A

just like the lone star it represents TEXAS
Sep 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
A really compelling read. I learned a lot about civil law and class action lawsuits.
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
Apr 05, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction-read

A fast-paced non-fiction, that I had trouble putting down.

In the 1980's 2 corporate giants are accused of poisoning the water supply of a Massachusetts town. A small Boston firm takes on the case, and the lives of everyone involved are never the same.

Harr wrote this book as the case began taking shape and thus his research is impeccable. The book reads, like a well crafted thriller. Thoroughly enjoyed.
Tyler Obenauf
Oct 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
I was familiar with the case and had seen bits and pieces of the movie, but the book is an amazing rendition of the various facets of the case and Harr does a great job of weaving the various story lines together to tell a compelling narrative of the case.

I was worried that the technical nature of the case would prove too complex to read about, but the story is wonderfully researched and well-written for audiences who only have a minimal science background.
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Apr 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: legal, non-fiction
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
Nov 19, 2014 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 28, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: film-source
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
Jun 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: law
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Manny Santiago
Nov 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pg-446
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
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 08, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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. ...more
Donna Craig
Mar 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Probably a 3.5. The writing was good and drew me right into the story. However, I never established any feelings of connection or intimacy with the main character. I never knew his motivations or related to him as a human. This book read more like an historical account of an interesting event. Which I guess is what it is. Also, some time in the early 400’s (this book is 500 pages long) I began to feel like the book would never end. And, hey—it kinda didn’t. It felt more like it fizzled out.
May 27, 2019 rated it liked it
I ended up giving this book 2.50014 stars , rounding up to 3 . It started out with promise , became tedious , then became a challenge as to wheter I would finish it or die trying . I kept thinking there has to be a positive message here , but there wasn't . In reality , the only reason I gave it 3-stars is that the previous book I read by the author ' The Lost Painting' was so good . Consider yourself warned ! ...more
Jul 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Jul 23, 2007 rated it did not like it
Law school required that we read this before we started our first year.

I don't know why, it is long, painfully boring, and ultimately pointless.

Wait... law school is long, painfully boring and ultimately pointless. It all makes sense now!
Dec 12, 2009 rated it liked it
I think we know where his sentiments lie.
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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

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In the world of books, witches have been enjoying something of a moment lately. Stories about witches go waaaay back, of course. But in the...
31 likes · 4 comments
“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.” 10 likes
“Truth is found at the bottom of a bottomless pit." Jerome Facher - A Civil Action.” 5 likes
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