Jonathan Harr

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A Civil Action

Harr, Jonathan

Last Updated: Jan-14-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism


The author, who writes and teaches nonfiction writing, began research on the lawsuit that forms the fascinating subject of this book in February, 1986. While the book focuses on Jan Schlichtman, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, and on his strategy in the case, there is much here that is relevant for health care professionals.

The lawsuit, which lasted nine years, concerned the tragic consequences of exposure to toxic waste: deaths from childhood leukemia; skin rashes, nausea, burning eyes, and other ailments. It was brought by eight families who lived in Woburn, Massachusetts against two companies, W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. The lawsuit claimed that these companies were liable for illnesses and deaths attributable to trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of the water supply.

The story of how the families and the lawyers pieced together the fragments of the puzzle to determine cause and effect is gripping. One gains an appreciation for environmental epidemiology and the difficulty of reaching conclusions when only a small number of individuals are affected. Medical experts, public health specialists, geologists, civil engineers, government agencies, and the intelligence and driving motivation of the affected families and their lawyers were all necessary to establish the credibility of the claim.

In the end, however, the financial power and stonewalling of the companies, and the partiality of the presiding judge for one of the defense lawyers resulted in a verdict that favored the defense. Jan Schlichtman, the plaintiff's lawyer, was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Only when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to launch a clean-up and filed suit against W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods to pay a share of the cost, was any semblance of justice obtained. The EPA project will take 50 years, and even so, "all parties agree that it will prove impossible to rid the site of TCE and perc [tetrachloroethylene] completely . . . . " (Afterword; p. 494) Nevertheless, most of the families have not moved.

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