In class, we have learned many important topics in the legal, ethical, and regulatory environment of business. However in the classroom setting, we have examined each of these topics individually. Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action allows us to see how the topics learned relate to one another in the context of a real world setting. His book provides an engaging read about the legal practice action while connecting the topics of the relationship between law, business, and ethics; the court system and litigation; alternative dispute resolution; and the nature of the corporation. A Civil Action complements the material learned in class, and it helps to create an overall cohesiveness between the topics learned in class that we taught disjointedly but in great detail.
Law and ethics are topics that are closely related. Both subjects govern human behavior and reflect the society’s values and beliefs. Many laws derive from ethical principles, but not all ethical principles are laws. Law is a body of enforceable rules governing relationships among individuals and between individuals and their society. Law accumulates the ethics of the society, reflecting what is considered right and wrong in communities, towns, states, and countries. While similar to law, ethics are moral principles and values applied to social behavior. The most distinct difference between the two is enforceability. If the rules of the law are broken, there are specific consequences enforceable by the governing body, whereas failing to comply with ethical standards is a matter for one’s own conscious. Even much of law derives from ethical principles, a gray area still remains between the two. Something can be considered legal although it may not always be seen as ethical.
The questionable actions of the defendants in A Civil Action fit this bill. Two large corporations W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods are accused of dumping toxic chemicals on their property, which allegedly contaminate the water supply, causing a leukemia cluster in the town of Woburn. The legal issue at hand is whether or not the chemicals contaminated the water supply, causing the cluster. However, the ethical issue at hand is that the companies should not have dumped toxic chemicals on the ground in the first place. They obviously knew the effects would be detrimental to the environment and human health. Ethical decisions often times do not make good business decisions. However more recently, the concept of corporate social responsibility was born, requiring those who run corporations to act ethically and be accountable to society for the actions of the corporation. Failure of a corporation to live up to this responsibility can be damaging to their reputation and profitability. In A Civil Action when Gordon and Schlichtmann are out lunch, their waiter, when asked about his knowledge of the corporation W. R. Grace, says they have had some problems where they polluted the water and killed some kids. No corporation wants this reputation among consumers. Betrayal of the public’s trust is something that is very difficult to come back from. We have seen this from in class examples including the Ford Pinto case, where an unethical decision to not redesign a flawed model backfired and led to public crucifixion. By the end of the book, after the trial and the investigation of the EPA, W. R. Grace closes it Woburn plant. Although this decision may have been made for many reasons, the community of Woburn would have always resented the corporation and the repugnant effect their decisions made on the community and its health.
The court system and litigation are obviously integral parts of the legal environment. Courts systems provide an arena for dispute resolution, and litigation is the process of resolving a dispute through the court system. One important aspect to keep in mind especially in relation to A Civil Action is the concept of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the power of...