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A Civil Action

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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 options.

Schlichtmann originally decides not to take the case due to both the lack of evidence and a clear defendant. 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 stretch all of their assets to their limit.

502 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1995

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About the author

Jonathan Harr

14 books101 followers
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. Harr spent approximately seven and a half years researching and writing A Civil Action, which was published in 1995, and subsequently nominated for a National Book Award, and awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. John Travolta and Robert Duvall starred in the film of the same name, and Robert Redford was on the production team. Harr later wrote The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece in 2005, which became a best seller.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 924 reviews
Profile Image for Perry.
630 reviews497 followers
August 15, 2016
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 the services of a small Boston law firm (3/4 attorneys) to look into what they thought was the pollution of their water supply by a local tannery owned by Beatrice Foods, and by the chemical company W.R. Grace. The law firm hired experts who found high concentrations in the Woburn water supply of trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical commonly used in production processes and known to be a possible cause of cancer. The law firm also located a witness who worked at the tannery who was prepared to testify that he had participated in removing sludge from the tannery's site and dumping it into a nearby stream over several years. The plaintiffs' and their "David" firm were ready to go to the jury with all their sick plaintiffs.

Yet, the defendants' counsel (at silk stocking Boston firms) persuaded the judge to bifurcate the trial. Specifically, in this bifurcated trial, the issue of causation was tried to the jury first, wherein the jury would determine if, by a preponderance of the evidence, the defendants' pollution "proximately caused" the leukemia instances. If so, the parties would present evidence to this same jury on the damages suffered by the plaintiffs. If not, the case was over. In the first phase of the trial (on cause) the parties would be prohibited from offering any evidence on the plaintiffs' damages. That is to say, the jury deciding causation would not get to hear from the plaintiffs who had been harmed, indeed would not hear a word about any damages or suffering unless and until the second phase of the trial. Such an outcome is devastating to plaintiffs who count on the jury being swayed by human nature to err on the side of caution on the causation issue due to the obvious and awful effects of leukemia on its victims and their families.

In a suit for environmental contamination (or med malpractice or products liability) the expenses for experts can rapidly reach astronomical proportions. The experts are so important to proving that the act (contamination) actually caused the leukemia (or damage or injuries). The experts must be hired early just to get past motions to throw the case out of court.

As a consequence of these high costs, relatively few law firms handle these cases. Small law firms cannot afford to front the expenses and then possibly be left holding the bag if the case tanks before they can even get to a jury. It works as a natural filter in many respects though. If these few dozen law firms all take a pass, it's likely the case would be thrown out for one reason or another or the case is just not worth all the expenses in terms of a potential recovery. Conversely, if one of these firms does take your case, chances are decent that some money will be paid by the defendants--after years of litigation.

There are times though that a small law firm with a big ego, like the one in this book, decides to take on Goliath in one of these expert-intensive/expensive cases. Of those, the results are often tragic. One in a 50,000 might be able to go all the way successfully.

Mr. Harr's portrayal intrigues in an area--high-stakes civil litigation of environmental causation--that can be extremely tedious. Many don't realize that 95% of the work on a civil lawsuit happens before the parties even see a jury. That 95% is mainly comprised of arguing motions after motions, some lawyers engaging in sophistry and word games in responding to discovery questions, battles over who should have to produce what documents, lengthy and often complex written legal memoranda presented to the judge, mediation, and lengthy depositions of the parties, witnesses and experts, often happening in widely ranging areas of the country, among other things.

In short, the author was able to condense years of litigation into a compelling story of a lawyer (though a bit too full of hubris) in a small law firm who took a shot at Fortune 500 companies and their battalions of lawyers on behalf of these poor Woburn residents, and lost everything.

Highly recommended if you're intrigued by civil litigation or environmental contamination.
Profile Image for Aric Cushing.
Author 9 books91 followers
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April 9, 2014
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 you should hang on, and when it is time to give up.
Profile Image for Fred.
581 reviews71 followers
September 28, 2022
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 Grand Jury for making false statements regarding its use of TCE regarding its use of the chemicals TCE, acetone and toluene. The company pleaded no contest to the acetone charge. It's Worburn, MA. Plant closed in 1990.

Faced with the prospect of returning to court, the two companies (WR Grace & Beatice) agreed to pay their share of the 69.4 million dollars in cleanup costs - the largest, most expensive project of its kind in New England history.

It took Jan Schlichtmann several years to settle his debts, but only one year to fall off Boston's Ten Most Eligible Bachelors list."

Jan Schlictman
Jan Schlichtmann - lawyer character in the book

NYT review - CIVIL ACTION By Jonathan Harr.
Jan Schlictman
Jan Schlichtmann - lawyer character in the book

IMDb - credit to Jonathan Harr book used for movie
YouTube - Movie trailer

Movie Poster
Profile Image for Moira.
512 reviews25 followers
September 28, 2012
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.)
Profile Image for Joyce.
425 reviews56 followers
January 7, 2015
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 at the corporate greed and denial with absolutely no responsibility for their actions. I was dismayed the our justice system and that a judge could be unreasonable and get away with it. No wonder it was so challenging and devastating for the prosecution. My heart ached for the people who lost children and family members due to drinking water with toxic chemicals. It scares me to think what would happen with lax environmental laws.

This book is perhaps some vindication, but it's also a wake-up call to all of us. Could this happen to me?.... There's a lot to think about here.

Highly recommend to anyone who likes suspense and a legal thriller.



Profile Image for Murray.
Author 144 books415 followers
February 2, 2023
This is a difficult book to read because of the injustice of the justice system in this civil case especially with respect to the judge who presided. After the judge squashed every attempt to right a wrong, and gave water polluters free reign to keep on polluting, the EPA showed up, swept the judge’s inane verdict aside, declared their own investigation had given them all the evidence they needed, and shut the polluters down. What the courts could or would not do the Environmental Protection Agency did in a finger snap.

There is a movie on this book featuring John Travolta.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Bonnie E..
159 reviews22 followers
May 13, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
959 reviews122 followers
July 23, 2013

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 were ordered shut down. It looked like two factories in the area, one owned by W.R. Grace and the other by Beatrice Foods, might have been the culprits. Jan Schlichtmann, a relative newbie lawyer, took the families' case, and then almost bankrupted his own firm in the process. He spent over two million dollars on geologists, epidemiologists, doctors, and law professors, as well as on medical and groundwater tests, all trying to prove that the two companies knowingly polluted the water and poisoned his clients. The discovery process lead to years of deposed witnesses and experts, and the actual trial lasted for months. Of course, the aftermath of appeals and counter-appeals, settlement offers and negotiations, lasted for years. It's a real-life Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, straight out of Dickens.

This may sound like potentially tedious material, but Jonathan Harr, a former writer for the New Yorker, makes it constantly vital, alive, and real. The people in the story, from the fanatically determined Schlichtmann to the droll Jermore Facher, the Hale & Dorr lawyer for Beatrice, to the ornery District Judge Walter Skinner, to the families of the children, all come across with their own qualities and foibles, and one gets the sense of a real honest appraisal of their characters and their role in the drama. The trial and discovery process offer innumerable twists, and demonstrate the real thought and intelligence that must be put into these efforts by all sides.

So I heartily recommend this for anyone wanting to read about the American legal system in process, or for anyone who just loves a great story.
Profile Image for Amy.
2,542 reviews381 followers
September 4, 2017
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 egregious to ignore. I wouldn't accept this kind of bathos in my fiction; I fail to see why I should tolerate it in my non-fiction.
I suppose a great deal of my beef with this book is that the author never quite won me over to his hero, Schlichtmann. Despite the author's evident hero-worship, I found Schlichtmann obnoxious and unprofessional throughout. While I could sympathize with the families who lost their children, my general dislike for the plaintiffs and their case made it hard to get outraged, or even really care. The author tries to make this a story about "big business" and "corrupt government" squashing the little guy...and yet such a characterization falsely minimizes the realities and nuances of what happened. I just don't buy that the defendants were the monsters the author makes them out to be. And don't give me this crap about him being unbiased, the author clearly has an agenda here. How can he not? He admits to spending most of the trial in Schlichtmann's office.
Besides being an extreme telling of one side, the author tries to drum up some romance for Schlichtmann by bringing in his girlfriend and another girl trying to win his affection. It was unnecessary. This book was already too long and detailed without side-stories that don't go anywhere.

A Civil Action would make lousy fiction; it makes horrendously boring non-fiction.

You know, there is a bright side to all this. I can now adamantly cross off environmental law and personal injury from the types of law I might ever, possibly consider studying.
Profile Image for Horace Derwent.
2,192 reviews160 followers
July 17, 2016
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
Profile Image for Krista.
98 reviews
July 1, 2013
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, is living large, buying a Porsche, expensive suits, and booking expensive hotel conference rooms and catered meals to conduct negotiations with opposing council, all of which are billed as expenses to be deducted from any future settlement the victims might receive. I wound up hating the lawyers. What is the point of such extravagance? Residents keep suffering and the lawyers play ridiculous games, hiding information, arguing over points of legal minutiae. It's infuriating. In the end, the companies are not held responsible and the plaintiffs, who've suffered horrible losses, get $300,000 per family, a pittance considering their medical expenses. The author did an artful job telling this story, but it further damaged the credibility of the legal profession.
Profile Image for Ram.
80 reviews1 follower
May 29, 2008
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 significance of events as they happened, and so on, and so forth, and so what. What a chump. The fact that he was played by John Travolta, I believe, in the film version is a perfect representation of how utterly impotent and incompetent this guy appears to be throughout the book.
Profile Image for Dyana.
728 reviews
October 1, 2011
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 which entered the ground water and well system of the town. The amount of money, paper documentation, manpower and people hired as expert witnesses are mind boggling! Also frustrating is how flawed the American court system including a biased judge can be. Since this is true life and not fiction or Hollywood there is no hero who saves the day, and the case never is really resolved - it goes to settlement largely because of the amount of money the law firms spent on this trial and other factors that prohibited a fair trial. This book was written like a documentary, was gripping, and thoroughly researched. I understand the author shadowed many people involved before and during the trial. Very thought provoking - I will have second thoughts about drinking tap water, but I'm sure experts will eventually find something wrong with bottled water too!!!
1 review
December 19, 2008
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 seem to work in concert as a fraternity against Schlictmann late in the novel when the appeals process nears conclusion. Thought Harr did a fine job being fair and unbiased in his representation of both sides although his 'loyalty' (and i use the term loosely) lay firmly with Schlichtmann. I always say that in order to create a truly memorable story, you need a clash between a great protagonist and a strong villain to balance him out. I freely admit that by the end of "A Civil Action" I openly hated Judge Skinner.
Profile Image for Joanne.
534 reviews51 followers
April 5, 2021

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.
Profile Image for Nathan Slauer.
1 review2 followers
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April 11, 2014
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 with environmental struggles.

Harr begins his account by introducing his audience to Anne Anderson, a woman living in Woburn, Massachusetts whose son Jimmy contracts leukemia. Mrs. Anderson grows suspicious as she notices for the first time that a surprisingly high number of children from the town of Woburn have contracted leukemia as well. The discovery is soon made that the origins of this leukemia come from toxic pollution from the city’s water wells. The pollution, as it would turn out, derives from two powerful corporations operating nearby Woburn called Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace that knowingly dumped out carcinogens including trichloroethylene. Upon discovering that Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace were dumping these carcinogens into the ground, Mrs. Anderson and seven other Woburn families proceed to challenge the corporations’ practices in court.

The rest of A Civil Action follows Jan Sclichtmann, a lawyer who takes on the case. Harr follows the case in its entirety, meticulously describing every detail of Schlichtmann’s attempts to track down evidence against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. In the end, Schlichtmann manages to win a $8 million settlement with Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. While this may sound like a victory, Harr ends A Civil Action on a sad note, leaving Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace relatively underwhelmed by paying what is for them a relatively inexpensive settlement fee and Schlichtmann going into bankruptcy and shutting down his law practice after spending too much on the case.

Harr deserves praise for capturing the human story in this environmental case. All too often, media coverage of large environmental disasters fails to convey how that particular disaster influenced real individuals. Instead the focus tends to be on statistics, the financial impact, and how politicians will react to the event. Harr takes a different approach, starting his story with the actual victims of the toxic pollution before moving on to focus on the legal details. Even when Harr does provide legal detail, he does so in a way that humanizes the struggle. For instance, Harr uses quotations throughout A Civil Action that makes the feel like a story with characters and dialogue, rather than simply a bland description of an event.
Unfortunately, Harr frames his story in a way that is ultimately far too simplistic. Harr gives the impression, or least does nothing to dispel the impression, that incidents like the one that occurred in Woburn happen frequently. Of course, A Civil Action is based on a real case of toxic pollution and other toxic pollution cases involving carcinogens such as trichloroethylene occurred. Epidemiological studies conducted by the National Research Council in 1991 found that, although scares of toxic waste ran rampant following the Woburn incident and another toxic waste spill in Love Canal in 1978, the threat of toxic waste was largely overblown given that it had a minimal effect on overall health in the U.S. To be fair, Harr’s intentionally chose to narrow his focus on a particular story he found compelling rather than write a much broader, more academic book about toxic waste contaminations in general. With that said, A Civil Action arguably contributed to the toxic waste hysteria that occurred after the Woburn incident rather than educating the public and providing a more nuanced portrayal of the situation.

In addition to portraying the issue of toxic waste in an overly simplistic way, Harr portrays his character’s struggle in an overly simplistic way. Harr paints the world in white and black, giving his audience a display of a manichean struggle between the poor victimized citizens of Woburn and Schlichtmann against the evil corporations Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. Harr’s world needs a bit more gray splashed on it. Unlike Harr’s depictions, corporations and the people who work for them do all do terrible things for the sole purpose of making a profit. More importantly, corporations are not the only ones responsible for environmental harm. In A Civil Action the emphasis is always on the corporations being entirely blameworthy for toxic contamination that harms the blameless citizens of Woburn. What’s missing is any consideration for how demand for these corporation’s products by normal citizens drives corporations like Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace to take environmentally harmful actions in the first place. Harr would have us believe that Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace act alone, and take unilateral action to harm the environment. Clearly, corporations do cause environmental harm, but this is not the whole picture. The relationship between corporation and consumer is reciprocal and environmental degradation is never entirely unilateral.

The biggest problem with A Civil Action is that its ultimate lesson that taking an ethical stand against environmental problems is fruitless. In A Civil Action average citizens like the residents of Woburn are portrayed as being at the whims of powerful corporations. The only individuals who dare take a stand against these corporations, men with unshakable notions of maintaining justice like Schlictmann, are ultimately bound for failure. As stated previously, A Civil Action ends on a deceptively happy note. True, Schlictmann technically does score a victory by forcing a major legal settlement with Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. To compare A Civil Action from a much more low-brow piece of media, the popular movie 300 which depicts the three hundred Greek troops fighting in the legendary battle of Thermopylae against an overwhelming Persian army, Schlictmann is like the Greek King Leonidas who dares pierces the flesh of the God-King Xerxes. In what is the climax of 300, King Leonidas launches a spear and pierces Xerxes’ flesh, showing that he is no god and can bleed. This is supposed to be a glorious moment, although it is soon followed by each and every one of the Greek men being slaughtered. In a similar way, Schlictmann demonstrates he can cause the seemingly all-powerful Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace to bleed, in a sense. But ultimately, just like the Greeks in 300, Schlictmann standing up against more powerful forces simply causes him to lose everything. Perhaps the biggest difference between the Greek army and Schlictmann is at least the Greek army got to go out in an epic fight that was remembered in history. Instead Schlictmann goes out rather pathetically, losing all of his material stability and status. One of the final scenes in A Civil Action depicts Schlictmann swimming out into the ocean outside of Hawaii, arguably contemplating suicide and acting like a completely defeated man.

The message Harr sends is that those who fight for ethical causes such as justice or environmental protection may win, as Schlictmann did, in the short term, but they will never win in the long-term. Schlictmann won his ethical victory, but lost literally everything else afterwards. By contrast, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace may have been publically embarrassed and lost a bit of money in the short term, but will clearly live to see another day without much cause to worry in the long term. Once again, it is important to emphasize that Harr is telling a true story so he does not have the license to make up an ending that would inspire more people to go out and become justice-defending, environmental advocates. However, Harr definitely does not spin the ending in a way that makes Sclichtmann someone one would wish to emulate. Instead Harr makes clearly that, in his understanding, good people who fight for something will inevitably lose to bad people who have more money and power. This is, ultimately, far too discouraging of a message and one that taints an otherwise fairly well written book.

Someone looking for a legal thriller that will keep themselves entertained while they hit the beach might want to check out A Civil Action. But those who seek to take a more substantial look at environmental issues or to be inspired to fight for a more just society should look elsewhere. In A Civil Action one will only find cynicism.
Profile Image for Tyler Obenauf.
278 reviews1 follower
October 17, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Lisa (Harmonybites).
1,834 reviews324 followers
September 6, 2013
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 the defendants could argue the science behind the allegations was, shall we say, not necessarily solid. And so meticulous was Harr in explaining the entire process of a law suit from beginning to end, this was required reading in my One-L Civil Procedure class in law school. It made a rather fascinating introduction into the law.
Profile Image for Kristin.
979 reviews6 followers
November 22, 2014
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, Mass. in the 1960s. The prosecuting lawyer then pins blame on the contaminated water as the cause of leukemia and other diseases that appeared in the East Woburn population in higher frequencies than normal, but so many pages are devoted to the question of 'how did the water get polluted?' that the sick children end up as an afterthought.
I can understand why this was recommended reading in the high school Business Law class, however, as the author frequently emphasizes how much of a toll this case took on the prosecuting law firm, as their lawyer took on those representing big businesses with deep pockets who can afford to hire bulldogs to make little guys like the prosecutors go away. As the case drags on for months, houses are put up as collateral, cars are repossessed, life savings are decimated, and spare change found in a pocket or car makes the difference between walking vs. taking the bus to work or eating a hot meal or cold cuts. While the author focuses on the prosecution's claim, he doesn't leave out the perspective of the companies, though the bias is clearly favoring the prosecution.
Overall, I would have liked the book to focus more on the medical case and less on the contamination charge against the 2 factories, but I suppose the author could only follow what happened in real life and the contamination case is what occupied lots of time and money.
Profile Image for Rise.
298 reviews30 followers
January 17, 2016
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 like a Grisham only with a better material, superior characterization, and moral grit. I cannot fully describe the book’s impact on me at the time I read it. I just remember that it made me both angry and hopeful. Angry about the extent to which powerful people will do everything to get around environmental laws, hopeful that there are decent people who will dedicate their lives to pursue environmental justice at all cost.

Perhaps you have seen the movie starring John Travolta? Avoid it.
Profile Image for Steven.
466 reviews18 followers
July 14, 2016
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 attorney in similar tort suits, I probably should re-read this, particularly the parts about the Boston legal community. I read it as homework--during the summer before first-year law school classes.
Profile Image for Gary.
128 reviews4 followers
June 20, 2009
This book tells the true story of one of the most significant environmental legal cases in US history: Anderson v. Cryovac (1983), known more informally as "the Woburn case." The citizens of Woburn, MA suffer from an unusually high rate of leukemia. Civil lawyer Jan Schlichtmann takes the case against the powerful companies suspected of dumping toxic chemicals.

I taught this in my course on rhetoric and the law. My students were very frustrated by the ending. They were looking for the standard Hollywood plot where the little guy overcomes the big guy and right overcomes might. But sometimes, the bad guys just have a lot more money. It's pretty disturbing, too, how this case ruins Schlichtmann's life. Maybe I made the right choice not going to law school after all.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
November 20, 2009
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 with the smells in the water too, making it worse. so, the people of Woburn decided to make a case out of this situation, and they go to a very famous lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, to help out with the problem
Profile Image for Nathaniel Spinney.
15 reviews1 follower
July 16, 2012
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 errors and corrected them, I believe it's a good system, but I was pretty depressed after finishing this tale. I would recommend it but with the caveat of being saddened by it.
Profile Image for Sarah.
351 reviews150 followers
November 9, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Donna Craig.
859 reviews35 followers
March 18, 2018
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.
Profile Image for SoulSurvivor.
779 reviews
May 28, 2019
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 !
Profile Image for Emma.
47 reviews1 follower
July 31, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Patrick.
209 reviews3 followers
July 23, 2007
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!
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