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am 25. April 2000
Although I'm not usually a reader of non-fiction, many of my friends insisted that I read this book. The fact that the movie was coming out prompted me further. I can't tell you how much I loved this book. Even though it's 500 pages, it goes fast. There are times I wanted to punch everyone standing in the way of attorney Jan Schlictmann. You meet some sad people in this book, primarily the leukemia victims of Woburn, Massachusetts but sadder still the members of that "old boy's club of Harvard". Harr's writing of this appalling occurrence is nothing short of masterful. My hat is off not only to the author for this extraordinary undertaking but to the attorneys who made an incredibly true story seem so unbelievable that one could realistically believe it had to be fiction.
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am 11. Januar 1998
Irresponsibilty...Tragedy...Egotism...Persistence...Incompetance...Dishonesty...Recovery. "A Civil Action" will take you on a legal rollar coaster ride, from the unfortunate deaths of innocent victims, to the closing arguments and disappointing verdict. Just when you think that you know what will happen next, a shocking discovery or unexpected event changes everything. I believe that W.R. Grace and Beatrice were ultimately responsible for the chemical dumpings and the resulting water contamination. Schlictmann handled the case fairly well, except perhaps for his closing arguments. If the plaintiffs wanted tenacity, however, they could not have found a better representative than Jan Schlictmann. His persistence and obsession to seek justice for his clients was admirable, but it came with a price. When an individual is willing to take risks this great, like Schlictmann did, he/she cannot expect to win every time or for everything to go smoothly. As for as the defense is concerned, I think they did what all defense attorneys do: get their client a not guilty verdict, even when they know in their heart that the defendant is guilty. There were definitely some ego problems here. Both Facher and Cheeseman seemed annoyed that this younger lawyer, Jan Schlictmann, upstaged and outsmarted them on more than one occasion. Author Johnathon Harr does not give much coverage behind the scenes with the defense, so one cannot say with certainty what they were thinking about. But, given the evidence, it would be hard for anyone to think that these two corporations were not in some way responsible for the contaminations.
If there is one individual deserving of blame in this case, it has to be Judge Skinner. Here we have an egotistical, worthless, stubborn old man, masquerading as an impartial seeker of justice and truth. A man incapable of admitting that he could make a mistake. A man with an attitude: "I am the judge, the infallible god of law. I will decide how I want this case to be decided". How could Skinner not know that Grace and Beatrice were responsible for these deaths? Why did Skinner pose his unreasonable set of questions to the jurors? Why did he seem partial to the defense? When I was reading this book, I started to get resentful at the fact that Schlictmann was still referring to Skinner in a respectful way by saying "Your Honor". There is nothing honorable about a washed- up, lying, egomaniac who pretends to be a judge!
Schlictmann did survive, but barely. I hope that his life is a little less hurried today. I also hope that the families are at peace with themselves and with the tragic losses that they have experienced.
For thos who have an interest in the legal world, "A Civil Action" is an absolute must read. For the rest, it is highly recommended.
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am 3. Januar 2000
This is one of the saddest true stories and a terrific legal thriller, all combined in one. Jonathan Harr's book tells the story of Jan Schlichtmann, a showy Boston lawyer, and his case against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods for allegedly causing waste to flow into the drinking water of Woburn, Massachusetts, which caused a leukemia cluster to occur.
This book, through Harr's superb narrative skills, manages to create emotions in the reader which many books in this genre cannot match. These families underwent great emotional and physical horrors, and I found myself feeling mad and frustrated at Schlichtmann, an attorney who is bright and hard-working, but who has NO concept of money, very little concern for his colleagues' well being, and, as a result, overspends on this case until virtually his and his firms' entire existence are repossessed. It also brings the reader into the world of the opposing lawyers, including Paul Facher, and William Cheeseman, and the judge in the case, Judge Walter Skinner, unique individuals all.
This is a work that is very technical is nature and might be more suited towards those with a familiarity with law, but even those without such knowledge (such as myself) will find it a fascinating and frustratingly good story.
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am 1. Juli 1999
This is the story of 8 years of litigation on behalf of parents in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose children had died of leukemia. The number of childhood leukemia deaths had exceeded the rate expected in the Woburn area. Many residents of the community believed the children's deaths were caused by an industrial solvent, trichloroethylene, that two local industrial facilities had improperly dumped into the environment. The facilities were owned by two very large corporations.
The author, Jonathan Harr, relates the titanic legal and emotional struggles that attended ligating on behalf of the parents. The parents were represented by Jan Schlichtmann, a Boston attorney, who became obscessed by the suit. The two defendants were represented by high power legal firms. The trial was conducted in the court of a local judge, who is cast in the book as less than sympathetic to Schlichtmann and with the plantiff's case in general.
Without revealing the outcome of the litigation,the book makes a most valuable contribtuion to the literature on industrial pollution, community suffering, and environmental responsibility. It is therefore recommended reading. However, be cautioned that the book is long--indeed, too long by about one-third. Some of the legal details become tedioius, as does the author's narrative about Schlichtmann's tantrums and feelings of insecurity.
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am 11. Januar 2000
Anand Dharan Ms. Smith English I-7 January 6, 2000 One bleak night, Jan Schlichtmann wakes up to the sound of a sheriff, having come at last to repossess Schlichtmann's beautiful black Porsche. At this point, Schlichtmann could care less; buried in debt and struggling to fend off insurance companies, defense attorneys, and a cold, sadistic judge, the loss of his car is irrelevant in the scheme of things. As he looks ahead, all he can see is a long, winding trial; a trial to decide a case that he should have never taken on nearly a decade ago. Like many dramas, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, a legal thriller about the elusiveness of justice, begins in medias res, when Jan Schlichtmann, the plaintiff attorney for a group of disheartened, working-class families, has his car repossessed for failing to pay the bills; he is bankrupt, we are told, because of the case he is working on. By transporting us into the middle of things, Harr gives the reader something to think about as he flashes back to the beginning of the fiasco. Harr continues with an account of the unusual leukemia incidences in Woburn, Massachusetts, a working class suburb that was once dominated by the plants of two industrial behemoths: W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. Grace and Beatrice are both accused of dumping the toxin trichloroethylene (TCE) into the city's water wells, causing abnormally high rates of acute lymphocytic leukemia. His description, although long, is hooking, and the reader soon finds himself immersed in the Woburn scenario, living the lives of Ann Anderson, Jan Schlichtmann, and a dozen other characters who know that the fate of the Woburn case will make or break their careers. Although the introduction is well-written and informative, there are times when the medical reports, the doctor names, and the word "trichloroethylene" became all too tiresome. The description alone was like a book, the story of the downfall of a little town in Massachusetts. But no, we are only at the threshold of things, and this is where the trouble begins. Having been drafted by the citizens of Woburn, Jan Schlichtmann, an affluent young lawyer with a Porsche, Dmitri suits, and silk ties, with several big wins under his name, makes the Woburn leukemia case the sole responsibility of his firm, Schlichtmann, Conway, and Crowley. He and his assistants soon find themselves in the midst of bureaucratic procedures, with the actual trial away in the distance. It certainly feels away in the distance; Rather than add zest to the story, Harr virtually regurgitates a transcript of the court motions and dialogues between Schlichtmann, his partners, the defense attorneys, and Judge Skinner. Like a revolving camera, the plot traces Schlichtmann, everyday, from his condominium to work, to the court, to lunch, to his other appointments, ad nauseam. For several chapters - nearly two hundred pages - there is an urge to skim through the transcript-like precision, almost-meaningless events, and endless swear words. When the story finally becomes more interesting, we are hit with the most depressing part of the story, and alas, the end is upon us. What a dismal ending! Great story plot, great description, incredible research, good hooks...snip the introns and splice together the juicy exons, and presto...a true masterpiece of nonfiction drama. My rating: 7 thumbs up.
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am 6. November 1995
On the face of it, a nearly 500-page recounting of a hideously complex legal case involving large corporations would not make for especially compelling reading. But it _does_.

Jonathan Harr followed the emotionally wrenching case of Anne Anderson, et al, vs. W. R. Grace & Co., et al, for eight years. With a masterful sense of pacing, he shows children in the working-class town of Woburn, Massachusetts falling ill with leukemia, then dying. Gradually it becomes clear that the cause is related to the water they drink--specifically, a town well that has been contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent listed by the EPA as a "probable" carcinogen. Two corporations, W. R. Grace & Company and Beatrice Foods, each had manufacturing plants near the wells.

The horror of the leukemia deaths begets a horror of a legal case, pitting the residents of Woburn (David) against the accused corporate polluters, W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods (Goliath). Harr does a wonderful job of making its complexities readily understandable and dramatic. He sets scenes with a novelist's skill; his awe-inspiring research allows him to portray the emotions and intentions of the principal lawyers on each side with vivid, memorable detail. By book's end our view of the legal system has been broadened and enlightened by this single case.

A Civil Action is a fascinating, page-turning revelation of the practice of law. It is one of the finest works of nonfiction I've read in the last few years, and a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award in nonfiction.
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am 10. April 1997
By Jonathan Harr

This is a fascinating book and a tough call
The author presents us with a heart rendering case of eight children living in a small area of East Woburn, MA who have contracted leukemia and who eventually die of the disease. The alleged cause of the cancer is two wells that supply the drinking water for the area. The stories of the victims and their families make you cry out for justice. Anyone with any feelings, intelligence and conscience would demand that the causes of the problem be uncovered, the perpetrators of the pollution be brought to justice, the problem corrected, the toxins removed and the victims compensated, although what compensation could ever make up for the suffering and the loss of life.
Jan Schlichtmann, an obsessive compulsive, who is young and comparatively green as a lawyer and who champions causes where he feels injustices have occurred, finds himself engaged in the Woburn case. He is respected and revered by his staff, open and generous with the people that he works with and although a profligate spendthrift, has no interest in amassing money. Whatever he earns, he must spend as rapidly and as extravagantly as possible. When he is engaged in a case, it becomes the focal point of his life. He interviews hordes of people, finds and hires experts and even goes into the field to gather physical evidence. Costs be damned, the only thing that counts is to be sure that no scintilla of evidence be left undiscovered.
Schlichtmann has been warned by his colleagues that this case is almost impossible to win. Very few personal injury cases hold up in court and he is about to face a highly skilled defense team with unlimited resources. The defendants are Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace. Jan is a three man firm without financial reserves, representing several blue collar families with almost no financial resources.
In May 1982, Schlichtmann files a complaint just eight days before the statute of limitations runs out. He has almost no evidence at this time. His adversaries are Jerome Fasher of Hale and Dorr, (200 lawyers), representing Beatrice and William Cheeseman of Foley, Hoag and Elliot, another large Boston firm. Both men immediately start maneuvering to have case thrown out by filing motions such as violating Rule 11, which concerns frivolous law suits, charges of barratry, which imply that the lawyer solicited people to file the suit and many other complaints that prolonged the case and forces Schlichtmann spend more money.
The judge is Walter Skinner, a highly respected jurist with a reputation for fairness and one who will not put up with delaying tactics. He gives the lawyers nine months for discovery.
At this juncture, Schlichtmann's main evidence is "The Harvard Health Study" which found that there was a large increase in the health problems of those drinking the water from wells G and H. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, hardly a biased group, called the study flawed. It presented no hard evidence connecting TCE with leukemia. Jan has to start from the very beginning and create his own studies that will link the chemicals found in the wells to the diseases suffered by the East Woburn residents. He hires all kinds of doctors to test his clients and to come up with solid evidence connecting the wells to the sickness, but by the time of the trial, there are no long range, large population studies to support the theories. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence and a layman like myself would be persuaded by the mountains of data that there probably was a link. The cost of these studies is humongous.
In order to have a case, Jan must prove two other things, first, that the plants actually dumped the toxins and second, that the toxins actually reached the wells. Jan questions many people and finds a couple from Grace who admit to pouring waste into open ditches. Riley who ran the Beatrice tannery hangs tough and remembers nothing. Geologists and hydrologists are retained and do very extensive and very expensive studies. The discovery deadline is extended and the costs to Schlichtman continue to rise. He is completely overextended. Fasher and Cheeseman continue delaying tactics hoping that the plaintiffs will run out of funds and have to drop the case. The trial date is finally set for February 86, almost four years after filing the complaint.
Judge Skinner divides the trial into two parts, first the plaintiff must prove that the companies polluted the wells. If the jury finds this is so, then the medical part of the case will take place. Fasher offers to settle the case against Beatrice for 1M. per family. Schlichtman turns him down and keeps his most talented foe in the battle. Fasher crushes Schlichtmann, who is completely out of his element in this kind of a dispute. When the first phase is completed, the judge gives the jury four questions to answer and they are really ambiguous. The jury finds Beatrice Foods not liable. The case continues against Grace.
Schlichtmann, completely out of money and with very little stomach to continue this one sided battle is in reality, forced to settle. He gets $8,000,000. After expenses and fees, each family receives $350,000 and Jan ends up with $30,000. W.R. Grace never has to admit guilt.
When I read this book, my sympathies were entirely with Schlichtmann. Was this a miscarriage of justice? I am not sure. Jan was a babe thrown in with real professionals. When we get down to facts, his case was to be built on sympathy for the young victims. He amassed huge amounts of data and felt that this alone would overwhelm a court and allow him to win. The judge, experienced and sharp, knew what was valid evidence. Schlichtmann irritated Skinner by being abrasive and disrespectful and the judge appeared rather harsh in his rulings, but was he unfair? It appears so on the surface, but I look at other evidence. In 1990, the Court of Appeals turned Schlichtmann down, based on the case he presented. They commended the judge for the way he ran the trial and endorsed sanctions against Schlichtmann for his conduct. Hardly a biased body. Justice Stephen Breyer, head of the Mass. Court of Appeals, turned down a petition for a rehearing of the appeal. Hardly a biased party. Finally, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Did Jonathan Harr slant the story in favor of the victims? Did he believe that a case that could have been a landmark for the environmentalists should have received better treatment in the courts? Was Jan the wrong person, who because of an enormous ego, was unable to decide "when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em"? He had several opportunities to settle the case for what I would consider a very large amount of money. Did he refuse to heed the pleas of his colleagues and advisors to consider settlement because he had his head in the clouds and couldn't envision himself
losing the Holy Grail. True, after the case was settled, evidence came out that may have won the case for the Woburn people, but Jan, hindered by a lack of money had to rush to trial in order to survive. Someday, a group with larger resources may mount a case and win it.
One thing that the case does prove is that having unlimited funds and using them to manipulate the system never hurts. Is this justice?
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am 12. Juni 1999
Inside account of lawsuit by eight middle-class families from industrial suburb against corporations owning nearby plants that allegedly contaminated ground water, leading to leukemia and other illnesses. The nonfiction style is spare and prosaic, but the situations are interesting enough to draw comparisons to legal fiction, and the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality lends the work poignancy and a realistic level of moral ambiguity.
This reviewer has practiced law in the area of civil litigation for 18 years, and can vouch for the realism of the book's depiction of lawyers and the legal system.
SPOILER ALERT: Schlictman was screwed by some bad judging (notably the bifurcation, and the failure to reopen the case against Beatrice), but his failure to inform his clients of the Beatrice pretrial offer was unpardonable -- the worst solecism of anything described in the story. Schlictman seemed to have a certain contempt for his own clients, e.g. their exclusion during trial, and the structure of the Grace settlement. He also got nine million in total settlement, which is about what the case was probably worth, and has himself at least partly to blame for the cost of the litigation.
Not that I would want anyone looking over my shoulder and criticizing the mistakes I make. But like the book says, it's easier to tear down than it is to build.
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am 15. Oktober 1998
Jonathan Harr's twenty-year chronicle of the crests and troughs of "A Civil Action", which pits small town Americans against Big Business industries, ably wears many hats: It depicts the emotional drama of the families of a cluster of leukemia victims. (Try to keep a dry eye over the story of Robbie Robbins' dying declaration to his mother, "We'll meet in the back left corner of heaven.") It serves as a full-blown, but altogether captivating, civics lesson, a step-by-step narrative of a high-profile, high-stakes civil case from the decision to sue to final judgment. Even as a work of non-fiction, it has all the suspense and high drama of a Grisham novel (at least the good ones -- see my review of "The Street Lawyer", August 25, 1998). Some may feel that the book lends to the public fervor that the American Civil Justice system is neither civil nor just. But "A Civil Action" is not a wholesale indictment of the American legal system. Like true great story-telling, it sets forth the facts and lets you be the judge.
Although told primarily from the perspective of the Plaintiffs' lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, Mr. Harr does not attempt to paint Mr. Schlichtmann as an "Atticus Finch-like" ubermensch, fighting for all that is just and good. Rather, he appears to be motivated less by the tragic circumstances of his clients than by a titanic ego and the quest for the ultimate contingency fee. He depicted as extravagent and superficial. But at the same time, he goes for broke (quite literally) for his clients. The book taps into the raw frustration a trial attorney must experience in endeavoring to find positive proof for what on its face appears to be an elementary proposition -- that an anomolous number of people in a small Massachusetts town contracted leukemia due to the enviromental hazards created by industries upstream.
I cannot recommend this book enough, as both a lawyer and a lover of literature.
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am 2. August 1997
I really can't add to what's already been said about this great book. I remember a few years back when Beatrice was always on the commercials on tv and when I look back on it it was about the same time all this came out in the news. Now I don't want to buy any of their products. I firmly believe they and Grace were truly at fault but it doesn't seem they paid for their misdeeds. They're both no doubt in some third world dumping their toxins on some one else who won't be able to fight back. I really felt for Jan and his clan. How could anyone put up such a fight for so long, and I'd take my hat off to Conway and the boys if I had one. I chuckled at the testomony of Pender. Not that I was laughing at him, but I enjoyed his "spirit" and wanted to smack Facher (sit down already) and his unrelenting objections. Jonathan Harr has written a very remarkable book and Grishman can't hold a candle to him since Grishman writes books now so that they'll be made into a movie. This book should be made into a movie just so people can be aware of #$%@& companies like Beatrice and W.R. Grace. Hey, with a good cast (please not Tom Cruise) and a great producer and director this could be a winner. But read this book and thank God if you're not a lawyer. Now, where's my bottle of water
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