A Woburn Skeptics' Page
How does the movie A Civil Action depart from the underlying book?  How do both movie and book correspond with what happened in real life?

Jan Schlichtmann's lawsuit sought to blame two industrial firms for a cluster of childhood leukemias in Woburn, Massachusetts.  Many readers and viewers come away from both Jonathan Harr's best-selling book and the Touchstone/John Travolta movie with the view that the suit was a nobly conceived and factually well-grounded venture which lost basically because it got outspent and outmaneuvered by the clever defendants.  The links below suggest that the story is a good bit more complex than that.

This page got its start as a posting of my December 23, 1998 Wall Street Journal opinion piece taking a critical look at the movie; it later grew as I added other resources of interest to Woburn skeptics, including a powerful column by Boston Globe writer Alex Beam (reprinted below with his permission).  It was chosen as a Yahoo Pick ("Full Coverage: A Civil Action").


Walter Olson, "Hollywood vs. the Truth", Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1998.
Alex Beam, "Has Judge Been Judged Too Harshly?", Boston Globe, January 29, 1999.
Walter Olson, "A Woburn FAQ: On A Civil Action, Skepticism Is Overdue", Reason, April 1999.

Other skeptics' resources:

"Civil Action or Civil Fiction?" (James DeLong, Competitive Enterprise Institute)
Boston journalist Dan Kennedy's writings on Woburn case
Forbes: Michael Fumento
Investors' Business Daily: Steven Milloy
Transcript of public broadcasting's "Techno-Politics" 1/8/99; the second half features interviews with author Jonathan Harr and with skeptics Michael Fumento and Walter Olson.

Streaming video/audio (NetRoadShow) of Federalist Society panel discussion in Boston, March 2000.  Participants included Kevin Conway (plaintiffs), Jerome Facher of Hale and Dorr (Beatrice Foods), and Michael Keating and Marc Temin of Foley, Hoag & Eliot (W.R. Grace).   (1 hour, 50 minutes).

More about the movie:

Civil Action movie site
Photos taken during filming by Mr. Cheeseman (before he got ushered off the set)

"Hollywood vs. the Truth"

By Walter Olson
Opinion page, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1998

The publicists at Disney/Touchstone have been collecting accolades for the purported nuance and subtlety of their new courtroom drama, "A Civil Action." Daily Variety admires its "moral ambiguity" and lack of "clear-cut heroes and villains," while the Hollywood Reporter finds it "complex" and "sophisticated." To New York Times correspondent Carey Goldberg, the film's version of reality "is not a comfortable or a simple one."

If the film really does transcend the good-guy-bad-guy genre, someone forgot to tell the Houston Chronicle (hero John Travolta "duels with two ruthless megacorporations over a lethal chemical spill") or George magazine (action filed after "children have been devastated by industrial pollution").

Ambiguity? Moral complication? Enviro campaigners are already planning tie-in events to rally the troops, while The Progressive is hoping the movie (Robert Redford, co-producer) will revive trial lawyers' image and fuel public anger at big business.

Greyscale cinematography aside, "A Civil Action's" vaunted moral complexity consists mainly in assigning its hero some foibles and his chief antagonist some good points. When you reach the issue over which they fought for eight years--did the defendants' actions, in fact, kill eight residents of Woburn, Mass.? -- evenhandedness is nowhere in sight. The film encourages viewers to assume that of course the victim-families deserved to nail the corporate defendants -- a proposition disputable at the time (the Woburn plaintiffs never reached trial on the ultimate issue, and fared relatively poorly on interim jury findings), which looks even more dubious in retrospect.

To be sure, oversimplification is inevitable in trying to recount the tangled lawsuit detailed in Jonathan Harr's bestseller, or the history that led up to it.  Long the American capital of leather-tanning, a famously blightful trade, Woburn later diversified into insecticides and soon sported chromium lagoons and an arsenic pit to go with its mounds of discarded animal waste ("remediated" in recent years). In 1958 an engineer warned that the Aberjona River was far too polluted to be used for drinking water, yet town officials a few years later ignored his report and sank two wells. Residents at once complained of the water's foul color, taste and odor. There followed a "cluster" of leukemia cases within a few years centered on East Woburn. The wells were closed after they were found to contain high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent.

Attorney Jan Schlichtmann, writes Harr, "could not even pronounce the names of the chemicals in the Woburn wells, but he felt instinctively that they probably had caused the cluster of leukemias." A reasonable enough supposition, you'd think. Yet instinct is a poor guide in assessing residential cancer clusters, which despite intense study and popular assumptions remain stubbornly difficult to link to synthetic chemicals in the air, soil and water. When not arising from viruses or other contagion, most if not all such clusters seem to be the result of simple chance.

But Mr. Schlichtmann (played in the movie by Mr. Travolta) fixed early on a TCE theory of the case. He proceeded on the families' behalf to sue not the city, nor any of various locally owned polluters, but the two deep-pocket national companies on the scene, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace (as well as a third company that settled before trial).

Both defendants argued that the TCE in the wells was not theirs, Beatrice because its tannery had no record of having used the substance, Grace because its packaging-machinery plant was too far away. But the companies' ultimate and more important defense was that the concentrations of TCE found in the wells were far too low to have caused the health effects alleged. The defendants lined up a parade of distinguished experts to back up this assertion, and those experts' opinion has worn well with time: Later studies have steadily lessened fears of a link between TCE and leukemias or other human cancers.

The film's pivotal scene on this point strikes a false, tinny note. Grace's lawyer, trying to buck up a doubtful employee-witness, is shown reassuring him that the well water didn't cause the leukemia. "How do you know?" the worker asks. "I just do," the lawyer (played by Bruce Norris) replies in petulant tones. The preview audience laughed in contempt--the movie's one laugh line--and the damage was done, notwithstanding a token comment or two later about questions of concentration and dosage.

Readers of the book will have trouble recalling the "I just do" line, for a good reason: It isn't in the book. William Cheeseman, the Grace lawyer portrayed in the scene, says it never happened.

In some respects, the one-sidedness of the film merely reflects that of the book, a plaintiff's-eye view that made little effort to lay out the defense logic in any sustained way. Still, it was tempting to make a game of catching the filmmakers adding their own little flourishes.  For instance, when a plant manager testifies that the one-time dump site is going to be rededicated to conservation use, Mr. Travolta impresses the jury by retorting that it won't be easy, since not a living thing grows on the land -- a notion contradicted by the book, by real life, and even by earlier scenes of the movie, which showed ordinary vegetation.

Like the book, the film does well at capturing many important "ground-level" truths about litigation: its psychological wear and tear as fortunes veer from one camp to the other, its war-like escalation of expense, its witness-coaching and perjuries, its delays and uncertainties. "It's hard to recall a recent American movie that has disclosed with such bluntness the inner, shabby workings of the legal profession," says Variety. Protagonist Schlichtmann himself "now sees the kind of take-no-prisoners litigation he practiced in the Woburn case as a great mistake, and says as much at public speaking engagements," reports Ms. Goldberg in the Times: "I just came to appreciate how wasteful and destructive litigation can be."

Nothing, however, justifies the film's shabby treatment of Mr. Cheeseman, a well-spoken partner at Boston's Foley, Hoag & Eliot who gets portrayed in the film (but not the book) as a figure of derision, an ethically inert bumbler who can't keep fellow lawyers from making fun of his name and is heard mumbling snobbishly that "there was a Cheeseman on the Mayflower" (the real Cheeseman is the grandson of immigrants). The filmmakers, as it happened, were pumping up the role of Beatrice lawyer Jerome Facher (Hale & Dorr) into a bigger and more sympathetic character than it had been in the book, thus providing Robert Duvall with a juicy acting opportunity; perhaps to maintain some sort of ecological balance, they trashed his counterpart at Grace.

A company as big as Disney, it seems, can, Gulliver-like, hold named real-life people up to the light and turn them this way and that as scriptwriting whimsy strikes, knowing they're essentially powerless (even the lawyers among them) to stay out of the way of the sport. Mr. Cheeseman takes this with good humor, which is more than many would do in his place.

Moral complexity indeed.

* * *

Mr. Olson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

© author and The Wall Street Journal.  All rights reserved.

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"Has Judge Been Judged Too Harshly?"

By Alex Beam (columnist)
Boston Globe, January 29, 1999

In the space of just a few days, I saw the movie and read the book ''A Civil Action.'' I was transported. Both accounts of the poisoning of east Woburn's water supply and the subsequent marathon legal death match deserve all the praise they have received. I have only one question: Where does retired judge Walter J. Skinner go to get his reputation back?

Of all the main characters in Jonathan Harr's book, and especially in Steven Zaillian's movie, Judge Skinner comes off the worst. The plaintiffs' lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, is a charismatic, flawed crusader. The wily corporate lawyers defending the accused polluters are, well, wily corporate lawyers. But in Harr's book, Skinner is often depicted through the eyes of the author's prime source, Schlichtmann, who developed a paranoiac hatred of the judge during the trial. The movie is worse. John Lithgow's over-the-top performance portrays Skinner as an intemperate, white-shoe toady overtly biased in favor of the corporate defendants.

The unmistakable message of the movie and, to a lesser extent, the book is this: Big corporations poured poison into the drinking water of a tiny, woe-begotten town, killed children, and caused additional, untold health damage. Then they got away with it because of a biased federal judge.

But that's not what happened. Everyone familiar with the Woburn trial knows that Schlichtmann had a terribly weak case, further weakened not only by his shortcomings as a lawyer, but also by the formidable opposition he faced from Hale & Dorr and Foley, Hoag & Eliot. The case was complicated and frustrating, and Schlichtmann vented many of his frustrations on Skinner (''The judge is going to [expletive] me'' becomes his ugly mantra toward the end of the book). Skinner occasionally vented back. ''It's true that my patience [with Schlichtmann] ran out,'' he told an interviewer for the cable TV program ''American Justice.'

''When I heard that people felt Skinner was the villain of this piece, I was pretty distressed,'' says Harr. ''He's a good judge and a smart man, and he's a credit to federal judges. I regret not being able to get inside his mind.'' Skinner, alone among the major Woburn protagonists, refused to discuss the case with Harr (or with me). Skinner's eminently defensible position is that he addressed every aspect of the case during the trial, and that after a trial is over the judge should shut up.

Some interesting revisionism concerning Skinner's role is brewing within the legal fraternity. ''A Civil Action'' is now used as a teaching material in over 50 law schools, and Marilyn Berger, a Seattle University law professor, persuaded Skinner to contribute about three hours of videotape for curriculum use.

Skinner's comments, which will be seen by law teachers for the first time this weekend at a ''Lessons From Woburn'' conference at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center, have changed at least one mind - Berger's. For instance, she saw his controversial decision to split the case in two in a new light after hearing his side of the story. ''He took this case very seriously,'' she says. ''Ultimately he was driving for fairness. ... I think he's been treated very unfairly.''

Alex Beam's e-dress is beam@globe.com.

© Reprinted by permission of the author.


"A Woburn FAQ: On A Civil Action, Skepticism Is Overdue"

By Walter Olson
Reason, April 1999 [copy of article there]

"Lawyer Errs on the Side of Angels": That's the newsy headline atop Janet Maslin's New York Times review of A Civil Action, the Hollywood release, based on the book by Jonathan Harr, in which attorney Jan Schlichtmann sues two large corporations on behalf of leukemia-stricken children in Woburn, Massachusetts. "Fighting the good fight," reads a nearby photo caption. Maslin describes the children as "casualties of a poisoned river," though the real-world legal proceedings never reached the issue of whether they were in fact casualties of anything.

Already a best-selling book, A Civil Action is now moving into the curriculum, which means captive schoolchildren are going to spend a lot of time watching John Travolta and being exposed to what Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam describes as the "unmistakable message of the movie and, to a lesser extent, the book": "Big corporations poured poison into the drinking water of a tiny, woe-begotten town, killed children," and "got away with it" because of our defective civil justice system. Salon reviewer Charles Taylor has even charged the movie with being too evenhanded, making it look as if there were somehow two sides to the story when in fact the corporate defendants were "demonstrably guilty," the evidence against them "overwhelming."

But in reality, writes the Globe's Beam, "Everyone familiar with the Woburn trial knows that Schlichtmann had a terribly weak case." Here's a primer on why, to bring to class and startle your teacher with:

Q: What did the jury decide?

A: First, it ruled that Beatrice Foods was not responsible for polluting the wells, rejecting Schlichtmann's case outright. Second, it ruled that W.R. Grace had contributed to the wells' contamination beginning in September 1973. This second ruling was much less helpful to Schlichtmann than it may appear, since the date was midway through the leukemia "cluster" that gave rise to the suit. It's not easy to pin your epidemic on Typhoid Mary if she arrived in town well after the outbreak started.

Grace ponied up $8 million to settle, which meant the case never proceeded to its next phase, in which the jury would have considered whether the company's contribution to the wells' contamination had actually caused the leukemia and other illnesses. On the Beatrice side, it emerged that employees of the company had withheld from Schlichtmann an old geology report that he argued would have helped his case. This led to years of further litigation, culminating in a fairly thorough defeat for Schlichtmann, basically on the grounds that the report would not have saved his case no matter when he obtained it.

Q: Schlichtmann claims this was because the judge in the case, Walter Skinner, was biased against him. Is that true?

A: Not many others on the scene agree. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit upheld Skinner on all but one transitory issue; its final denial of rehearing was signed by then-Chief Judge Stephen Breyer, later named by President Clinton to the Supreme Court and considered nobody's stooge. Harr now says he was "distressed" to learn that Skinner came off as a villain to readers of his book: "He's a good judge and a smart man," he told Alex Beam, "and he's a credit to federal judges."

Q:What about Schlichtmann's other complaints that the judge was picking on him? Time says it was a "questionable ruling" for Skinner to have divided the trial into stages.

A: Such divisions are routine in tort litigation. They save the participants the expense of preparing for full-dress trial on later issues if a case may lose on preliminary grounds. Schlichtmann wanted to skip past the tiresome questions of who polluted what and get straight to putting client families on the stand to testify about the anguish of losing a child. Either he was banking on the emotional appeal, or he imagined the family testimony would somehow help resolve the hydrogeology issues.

Q: How did Schlichtmann manage to lose the contamination case against Beatrice, when its tannery was relatively near the wells and there was evidence of pollution on its land?

A: Two tactical decisions undercut his chances. The first was to fix on the theory that the cause of the leukemia cluster in east Woburn was trichloroethylene (TCE) and related industrial solvents. The second was to propose models of water flow that the jury correctly dismissed as incredible.

The TCE theory fit the headlines of the case, since it was the finding of solvents in the wells that led to their emergency closure. But as reporter Dan Kennedy, who covered the trial and aftermath for the Woburn newspaper and the Boston Phoenix, observes, Schlichtmann "had no evidence that the tannery had ever used" TCE. Nor was he ever able to come up with such evidence. Rather an important gap to leave in one's case, no?

Entangling himself further, Schlichtmann proceeded to call an expert witness who claimed that the wells, though alongside the heavily polluted Aberjona River, drew none of their water from that river. This was mighty convenient for his case, since it diverted attention from the likelihood that the many dumpers or polluters to be found upstream had something to do with the wells' contents. But it had the disadvantage of being false: As the U.S. Geological Survey soon established, nearly half the water in the wells came from the Aberjona. And the argument painted Schlichtmann into a hopeless corner regarding Beatrice, whose tannery was across the river from the wells, which meant the runoff from its land would hit the river before it got to the wells.

The jury, and virtually everyone else, rejected Schlichtmann's better-than-nothing theory that the never-seen TCE (which, it will be recalled, there was no evidence the company ever used or dumped) sank down under the Beatrice property, passed under the river without intermingling in any way with its waters, then came back up to taint the wells. No wonder Kennedy concludes that "the case against Beatrice had nothing to do with justice."

Q: The case against Grace was stronger, then?

A: Marginally so, but it still had plenty of problems. To begin with, TCE had not and still hasn't been found to cause leukemia, and fears of such a linkage have lessened since the trial. Furthermore, the concentrations of TCE in the well water were far below the levels that would cause the wide range of other health effects alleged (which included such common complaints as "rashes, sore throats, and chronic earaches" in children). Finally, the amounts of TCE used for metal cleaning in Grace's machine shop were not large.

Q: Meaning that?

A: Had the trial continued, Grace would have had a chance to call attention to the numerous other local sources of pollution. One was an industrial dry cleaner--a type of business that, unlike Grace's machine shop, uses solvents in large quantities--which was located closer to the wells than Grace but had already paid a settlement to be let out of the case. Other nearby businesses included an auto junkyard and what Harr describes as "a refurbisher of used 55-gallon drums and underground oil tanks" from whose lot a visitor "could smell a strong chemical odor." "Midnight dumping" was also a problem in the blighted area, and indeed had fouled part of Beatrice's land with wastes which it was clear had not come from its own operations.

Q: How did Schlichtmann fix on Grace and Beatrice as the culprits?

A: Not for lack of other suspects. Between tanneries and insecticide plants, Woburn was a veritable showcase of environmental disamenity, featuring arsenic, chromium, and other heavy metals as well as discarded heaps of animal parts from old tanneries. But many of the businesses responsible were small, defunct, or locally owned, and most questions of who dumped what had been hopelessly obscured by the passage of time. Also left unsued was Woburn's town government, almost certainly the most negligent party in sight: It had sunk the wells despite a vigorously worded engineering report saying the ground water was far too polluted to drink. After all, who wanted their taxes to go up if the city were made to pay a judgment?

Q: How solid was the Woburn leukemia cluster?

A: As recent press coverage has pointed out, big scares over purported residential clusters of cancers and other noncontagious ailments generally do not pan out when subjected to scientific analysis. See, for example, the articles by Atul Gawande in the February 8 New Yorker ("The Cancer-Cluster Myth") and by Gina Kolata in the January 31 New York Times. (Incidentally, why isn't the press more upset about the smear campaign against Kolata? Since she exposed the flimsy scientific basis of the breast implant litigation in the Times, a P.R. firm for trial lawyers has been sending out press kits attacking her, and several hatchet jobs have resulted in publications such as the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, and Brill's Content. How many other journalists would be willing to take on the litigation lobby if such intimidation campaigns came to be accepted as normal?)

The Woburn cluster was more impressive than most; some respectable sources found that it reached the realm of beyond-chance distributions, while others disagreed. To judge from Harr's book, it was so close to the border line that a recalculation of the town's population figures was enough to make it statistically significant. (Schlichtmann is now working on a case in Toms River, New Jersey, involving childhood cancers that occurred at a rate 30 percent higher than would be expected by chance--not an impressive figure in a small population.) On the broader point, we've had decades in which to look for a pattern of higher childhood leukemia rates in places where chemicals are manufactured. If such a pattern were there, you would have heard about it, but it isn't: Childhood leukemia occurs broadly and evenly across many populations.

Q: Why do so many readers and reviewers misunderstand the facts of the case?

A: One reason is the way the book is set up. Harr trailed Schlichtmann around like Johnson's Boswell, recording his every gripe and speculation. He interviewed the defense lawyers after the fact, and the judge not at all. The result, though full of illuminating detail about what it's like to live through a lawsuit, is also comically one-sided, making little effort to develop defense arguments at any greater length than is needed for Schlichtmann to come up with his response.

Q: So Harr is a fiendishly clever advocate for the enviros and trial lawyers?

A: No. Part of the book's charm is that he's too disorganized, or too honest, or too something, to stack the deck with any efficiency. The careful reader will notice that he keeps recording little details that a simple partisan for the plaintiffs' side would have taken pains to omit, from the scene on page 219 where Schlichtmann is shown coaching his medical experts--the first few experts he tried had turned him down, telling him he had no case--to the passage on page 417 where, very late in the proceedings, Schlichtmann's law partner is depicted as having no idea whether his side has a scientific case or not on the question of whether the chemicals had caused illness. Harr seldom makes anything of these details, but they're in there.

Q: Any parting lessons?

A: Some otherwise sensible libertarians have been strangely tempted by the "invisible fist" theory that depicts litigation as somehow optimal in its outcomes: The more cases judges decide, supposedly, the more perfectly costs will be internalized and the better off the rest of us will be. This was not in fact the view of judges in the now-idealized heyday of the common law. Despite Harr's shaky grasp of the scientific issues raised by the case, he does get one big lesson right: The Woburn litigation was a disaster for nearly everyone who came near it; an abundance of legal process is no guarantee of either efficiency or justice. For those whose reflexive answer to all spillover problems is "let the common law take care of it," it's at least something to think about.

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