Hnrs. Civil, Criminal, and Constitutional Law
30 April 2012
A Civil Action Essay
The legal thriller A Civil Action, starring John Travolta and Robert Duval, chronicles the story of personal injury attorney Jan Schlichtmann as he brings to trial a case involving the dumping of toxic waste by two large companies that allegedly results in the contamination of well water and the death of several children from leukemia in Woburn, Massachusetts. Based on a true story, the movie depicts the real-life class action lawsuit Anderson v. Cryovac, where parents of the deceased children sued the companies W.R. Grace and Beatrice for negligence and wrongful death, among other charges. Both the movie and the actual civil case pose many insights about tort and environmental law, as well as demonstrate the sentimental, intrinsic value of such exorbitant litigations.
To begin, the movie A Civil Action is largely based on the landmark case Anderson v. Cryovac. In Wodburn Massachusetts, an unusually high number of people, specifically children, were beginning to die from leukemia. One such child was Jimmy Anderson. Suspecting that contaminated water from two municipal supply wells (G and H) was the cause of her son’s untimely death, Anne Anderson tenaciously tried to sue. Her “orphan case” bounced around between attorney’s offices until it came across the desk of the Schlictmann, Conway, & Crowley offices. The personal injury lawyers initially had an aversion to the case, due to the lack of evidence, high costs to produce evidentiary findings, and the ambiguity of the defendant. However, after learning that three industrial giants with deep pockets are purportedly responsible for the water contamination, the firm takes the case. A class action lawsuit thus ensued, with the plaintiffs composed of eight families who had lost children to leukemia from the contaminated water. Schlictmann sued two major companies, W.R. Grace Co. and J. Riley Tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Co., for negligence, conscious pain and suffering, and wrongful death. A third company, Unifirst, was sued as well, but settled out immediately for slightly over 1 million dollars. The company W.R. Grace owned a chemical plant in Woburn that manufactured food-packaging equipment under the name Cryovac, and used the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE), a possible carcinogen, to clean tools. The company Beatrice owned the John Riley tannery, which allegedly dumped TCE and other industrial solvents onto the 15 acre property. W.R. Grace was represented by William Cheeseman, and Beatrice was represented by masterful attorney and Harvard graduate, Jerome Fatcher. Wanting to avoid the excessive costs of trial, Fatcher and Cheeseman initially Cheeseman filed a motion to dismiss, on grounds that the case was frivolous and lacked evidence. After denial for his motion, he along with Fatcher, tried to arrange a settlement, which proved to be unsuccessful. The case, like 1.5% of all other civil actions, was going to the courtroom.
To prove that W.R. Grace and the J. Riley Tannery were illicitly dumping chemicals, Schlictmann began to obtain depositions from workers for the companies. Most of the workers, however, were reluctant to relinquish information. Eventually, some workers did comply and admit that they had witnessed or partaken in the dumping of chemicals. Next, Schlictmann had to prove that the dumping of the toxins was directly linked to the contamination of the well water, miles away. In order to do so, the attorneys had to spend huge sums of money on geological research and medical studies; experts were to be brought in to testify. The tiny firm quickly exhausted their money and assets on the case, and became so financially invested in the outcome. After presentation of the scientific evidence, Schlichtmann planned on having the parents of the deceased testify, an act that would surely gain the jury’s sympathy. This plan was foiled, however,...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document