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A Civil Action Reprint Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 430 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679772675
ISBN-10: 0679772677
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In America, when somebody does you wrong, you take 'em to court. W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods had been dumping a cancer-causing industrial solvent into the water table of Woburn, Massachusetts, for years; in 1981, the families of eight leukemia victims sued. However, A Civil Action demonstrates powerfully that--even with the families' hotshot lawyers and the evidence on their side--justice is elusive, particularly when it involves malfeasance by megacorporations. Much of the legal infighting can cause the eyes to glaze. But the story is saved by great characters: the flawed, flamboyant Jan Schlichtmann and his group of bulldogs for the prosecution; Jerome Facher, the enigmatic lawyer for Beatrice, who proves to be more than a match; John J. Riley, the duplicitous, porcine tannery owner; and a host of others. It's impossible not to feel the drama of this methodical book, impossible not to grieve for the parents who lost children, and impossible not to share Schlichtmann's desperation as he runs out of money. A Civil Action reads like one long advertisement for a few well-placed Molotov cocktails. (But that wouldn't make for a very long book, now would it?)

From Publishers Weekly

This tale of a somewhat quixotic quest by an idealistic young lawyer concerns his efforts to secure damages from two corporate giants, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, for allegedly polluting the water in Woburn, Mass., a Boston suburb, with carcinogens. Jan Schlichtmann had hoped that a victory would send a message to the boardrooms of America and felt that the cluster of leukemia victims in Woburn (the disease had claimed the lives of at least six children) guaranteed his success. But he reckoned without certain developments: first, the case went to a federal court, a less sympathetic venue for damage suits than state courts; second, the trial judge appears to have been unsympathetic to his case; third, at least one of the defense witnesses lied; four, defense attorneys evidently failed to deliver all relevant documents to Schlichtmann's team. The case against Beatrice was thrown out, and the plaintiffs accepted a settlement of $8 million from Grace. Personally bankrupt, Schlichtmann considered himself a failure. Former New England Monthly staffer Harr has told the story expertly, although more exhaustively than most readers may wish. Author tour; movie rights to Disney.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 502 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 27, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679772677
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679772675
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (430 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #29,181 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on June 10, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book is a depressing lesson in the ways that our judicial system don't work. An adverserial system of justice, by its very nature, leads not to an inquiry into the truth but instead to a polarized system where each side is fighting for its own side and disinterested in the merits of its opposition.
While this book was, in many ways, a real downer, it was also a fascinating chronicle of litigation. I was immediately drawn in my the families' tragedies, Schlichtmann's flawed but good-hearted optimism, and the interaction between the lawyers and the judge. As Schlichtmann swirled deeper into debt, I found it impossible not to feel a growing sense of desparation along with him. The ending is bitterly disappointing, but in many ways the families eventually got what they wanted with subsequent EPA actions and criminal prosecutions.
My husband and I are both attorneys. Last year, he was involved in a case in which the outcome was simply criminal. I felt I could relate in a deeper sense to the drama in A Civil Action after experiencing such a travesty of justice firsthand. We have to work within the confines of the flawed legal system that exists now, but we must accept that it is far from perfect. Judges and juries--as humans--get things wrong all the time. This book, in gripping prose, demonstrates this basic fact of life in all too vivid of detail.
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By A Customer on April 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
WR Grace hailed TIAA-CREF,the academic world's largest private pension fund and a majority shareholder in Grace. On the board were also Alan Fiers of the CIA and Zbignew Brezinski, former NSA chief as well as Peter Lynch of Fidelity Investments.
Jan Schlictmann has lost most if not all of any proceeds from this case to Cadle Co. after the Boston Trade Bank failed.
Grace is/was a company very politically connected who hired former government officials, such as from EPA or OSHA,etc.
Many more families than just the ones in this case were affected, including families from the Woburn/Burlington side.
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By A Customer on September 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
W.R Grace itself is basically a holding company which at one time had many divisions each very different from each other.But the company itself has been involved in many controversial things. Grace Construction has been embattled over the years in asbestos litigation,which it manufactured while simultaneously working on a chemical tracking database known as Prolab. When divisions of a company are fined or found in violation, the fines levied are charged against that division. Say a company has a $500 million division, then a fine of $1 million is charged against the operating budget of that one division, not from the total operating budget of the parent holding company. This is part of the reason why big multibillion dollar companies fight so vigorously what appear to be relatively small fines with respect to the entire financialhealth of the organization. In a written newspaper article not long ago, there was mention that GE of Pittsfield,Mass had hired former government employees to help them exploit holes in compliance regulations and this may be a part of the reason why Pittsfield,Mass has resulted in another major environmental case involving millions or billions in environmental cleanup costs. Do most major corporations do this across government agency strata? And do companies engage in risky behavior because of the shield of large environmental insurance policies?
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By A Customer on January 31, 2001
Format: Paperback
I remember living in Woburn during the times when the earliest signs of epidemic emerged. We lived in a poor area in one of the worse parts of Woburn before moving around.I was a handicapped child,newly emerged from a long hospital stay and had to take weekly trips into Boston for checkups and treatments.
I remember people throwing rocks through our windows, paint on the back door, and nights of terror where we lived. I was bounced into state child care and suddenly just after this book came out, my life became a living hell. I lost most everything, was treated hostilely by the local medical community, had my medical records disappeared and became a target of attacks of the sort of viciousness i remember living in the subsidized housing in Woburn. I remembered having to appear in court as a young child and when i went back to the Woburn court 25 years later, could see nothing of the records concerning my court appearance, with no reason ever given. Some town personnel records from my early years in Woburn had been destroyed and 'friends' i had known for up to 20 yrs with ongoing ties to Woburn turned on me in derision. It was like i suddenly became a target of hate for being a handicapped boy who may have been one of the earliest cases in Woburn and never known it.
I began wondering if there were other kids out there like me from those days early in the epidemic who had experienced similar abuse. As more and more acts of hate were thrown at me i wondered how anyone could hold an infant responsible for what went on in Woburn.
I suddenly became unemployable in Massachusetts and my life prior to the introduction of this book has been destroyed in almost every respect.
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Format: Paperback
Harr's nonfiction tale of the Woburn case was an engaging way to explore legal strategy and some of the laws of civil procedure. My purpose for reading it was to learn about legal strategy from actual examples that went beyond substantive arguments about the facts of the case. This book did not disappoint. Perhaps the most brutal fact about legal strategy was the importance of money - namely, to fund the expensive discovery stage (i.e., when evidence is gathered) of the lawsuit.

While I did find myself rooting for the plaintiff's attorney, the protagonist of the story, Jan Schlichtmann, I was impressed with Harr's ability to portray the defense counsel in a humane light. The fact that Harr does not lionize Schlichtmann nor demonize his legal opponents (Facher, Cheeseman, Keating) demonstrates why Harr was the recipient of an award for outstanding investigative reporting. In addition to offering a non-romanticized view of an emotionally wrenching situation, Harr succeeds in telling a spellbinding tale. And it is the hard-to-put-down element of this book that, I believe, won it the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995. It is not a short story (500pgs), but the book held my interest and the painstaking narrative of legal details was packaged in as appetizing form as possible.

Harr does not read like Grisham. If you want Grisham's fast-moving plot then stick with Grisham. If you're interested in taking a look at the brutal details and legal chess moves that occur in litigation, then you may enjoy Harr.

Lastly, I disagree with reviewers who accused Harr of failing to flesh out his characters. Since the book is nonfiction Harr cannot take the sort of omniscient perspective available to a Grisham, but he does a fine job of getting inside the character's heads nonetheless.
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