In the movie ‘A Civil Action’ the film focuses on the discovery of a toxic-waste site which fueled suspicions that local industries had polluted the wells and therefore caused illness and death in the community of Woburn, Massachusetts. Anne Anderson, a Woburn mother whose son, Jimmy, died of a rare case of leukemia was persistent in her claims that the water was contaminated and related to her son and others dyeing in the ½ mile radius around her neighborhood, she persuaded the attorneys to investigate her claims which brought about the class action lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed by eight Woburn families against Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace which suspected that these companies were not properly disposing of chemicals (trichloroethylene an industrial solvent) that ended up in the drinking water.
Anne Anderson reached out to the small law firm that attorney Jan Schlichtmann worked for. Schlichtmann, specialized in medical malpractice and product liability cases and was hesitant to take on the case. The law firm, was concerned with the difficulty of proving the case with scientific evidence and to be able to prove the pollution of the land and groundwater had directly caused Leukemia in the residence. Schlichtmann used geological evidence, experts, and eyewitnesses to prove that the plants had contaminated the water.
The elements of negligence were: breach of duty, duty of care, proximate cause, and actual harm. Both companies (Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace) owned plants along the contaminated water supply, both companies breached their duty to properly dispose of waste.
When trying the case Jan Schlichtmann made his first error, when he walked away from negotiations that could have resulted in a settlement of $8 million. By forcing the case into the courtroom, Jan Schlichtmann diluted his strong case against Grace with his much weaker case against Beatrice, thus confusing the jury. More important, he had to deal with corporate lawyers that had the financial means and political reach to fight the case for a long period of time. Ultimately, the case stretched out over several years.
The area of law represented in the movie was Tort Law, which is wrongdoings that are done by one party against another. The injured party can take civil action against the other party. The tort in this case would fall under negligent torts which are not deliberate actions, but instead present when an individual or entity fails to act as a reasonable person to someone whom he or she owes a duty to. The negligent action found in this particular tort leads to duty of care. Schlictmann is successful in proving that the plaintiffs had a right to clean drinking water under various government acts and that Beatrice and Grace had a duty to not infringe upon these rights. As such, Beatrice and Grace had a duty of care to not dump toxic chemicals into the water, which could contaminate drinking water and devastate wildlife. Breach of duty is the second element of negligence and is clearly proven in this case. The star witness, Al Love, testifies that he witnessed his coworkers dumping toxic waste into ditches in the “backyard” which permeated the soil and led to contaminated drinking water. Breach of duty relies on this act not being what a reasonable person would do, and Schlictmann proves this too by showing that other companies would have had this waste disposed by experts.
It is difficult to prove that the actions of Grace and Beatrice were the direct cause of the leukemia cases. The defense raises this doubt by asking if the plaintiffs had ever used any other known carcinogens such as hairspray and Teflon pans. They answered yes and created doubt that the toxic waste was the proximate cause of the cancer in the victims.
The US Environmental Protection Agency identified three properties from which it believed most of the pollutants in the wells had been drawn: a machine-tool plant operated by W.R. Grace, then as now an international conglomerate; a vacant 15-acre site that was part of a tannery owned by Beatrice Foods, another mega-corporation; and an industrial dry-cleaning operation owned by UniFirst, a regular user of the one of the solvents found in the wells.
In the end, Schlichtmann accepted a less-than-attractive settlement from Grace Chemical, in order to provide the families some compensation and to repay creditors, netting himself thirty thousand dollars. Attempts to appeal the verdict which vindicated Beatrice failed, even though Schlichtmann had uncovered new evidence. Ultimately Schlichtmann is forced into bankruptcy, contemplating the termination of both his career and his life.
Anne Anderson’s quote “It is not about the money” to Jan during a meeting with the other victim’s families When I stand on my front porch I can see all the houses where children have died, none of us are interested in money that’s not why we’re doing this, what we want is to know what happened and we want an apology from whoever did this.
This is heart wrenching; this mother’s youngest child had died from Leukemia and her intuition told her something wasn’t right. Ms. Anderson wanted justice that’s more than financial. It’s not the natural progression of life when a child passes away before the parent. This tragedy stole precious moments a mother will not never be able to share with her child. Ms. Anderson’s son will never go to school, graduate from anything, have a first kiss, attend college, work, get married or have children. Ms. Anderson wanted validation that the wrong doers understood the gravity of ‘loss of life’ that there is pain, anguish and a void of her son that she will never have and no amount of money would ever fill.