The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece
A Civil Action is a 1996 work of non-fiction by Jonathan Harr depicting a water contamination case in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the 1980s. The book became a best-seller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.
The case is Anderson v. Cryovac. The first reported decision in the case is at 96 F.R.D. 431 (denial of defendants' motion to dismiss).
A film by the same name based on the book was produced in 1998, starring John Travolta as Jan Schlichtmann and Robert Duvall as Jerome Facher.
After finding that her child is diagnosed with leukemia, Anne Anderson begins to notice a high incidence of leukemia, which should be a relatively rare disease, in her city. Eventually she gathers other families and seeks a lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, to consider their options.
Schlichtmann originally decides not to take the case due to both the lack of evidence and a clear defendant. Later picking up the case, Schlichtmann finds evidence suggesting trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of the town's water supply by Riley Tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods; a chemical company, W.R. Grace; and another company named Unifirst.
In the course of the lawsuit Schlichtmann gets other attorneys to assist him. He spends lavishly as he had in his prior lawsuits, but the length of the discovery process and trial soon stretch all of their assets to their limit.
Though Unifirst settles for a little over $1 million, the money immediately is invested in the remaining case against Grace and Beatrice. The plaintiffs' case against Grace was far stronger for two reasons: (1) Schlichtmann had personal testimony of a former employee of Grace who had witnessed dumping, and (2) a river between Beatrice's tannery and the contaminated wells made their contribution to the contamination less plausible. The case against Beatrice was dismissed by Judge Skinner. Though Schlichtmann's firm had anticipated a much higher settlement, the dire state of their finances forced the firm to accept settlement from W.R. Grace for $8 million.
Schlichtmann disbursed the settlement to the families, excluding expenses and attorney's fees (which resulted in approx. $375,000 per family). When some of the families thought Schlichtmann had overbilled expenses, he acquiesced and surrendered more of his fee. Schlichtmann later filed for bankruptcy after losing his condo and car, and that he was living in his office for a time.
A report from the Environmental Protection Agency (based on new evidence) later concluded that both companies had contaminated the wells from the sludge that had been removed from the site. In 1988 Schlichtmann attempted to reraise the case against Beatrice, but the judge dismissed the case, citing testimony from Beatrice's soil chemist.