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A Civil Action Book Essay Sample

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 70-page guide for “A Civil Action” by Jonathan Harr includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Justice and The Value of Life.

Plot Summary

Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action is a nonfiction account of the legal case between several families in Woburn, Massachusetts, and two corporations, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace.

When the book begins, a young boy named Jimmy Anderson gets sick. His mother, Anne Anderson, believes it is just a cold. Jimmy’s condition rapidly deteriorates, however, and soon he is diagnosed with leukemia. Approximately the first quarter of the book presents the backstory of the Andersons and several other Woburn families whose children are stricken with leukemia. The cases all occur within a relatively small neighborhood, an uncanny coincidence that leads Anne to seek legal representation.

She and the other families with sick children enlist the services of a lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann, who puts together the lawsuit that will try the two corporations for poisoning the groundwater that would spread hazardous chemicals into the water supply that led to the Woburn neighborhood in question. Schlichtmann is an obsessive, odd figure. He believes in a grand destiny for himself, which is what leads him to take the case, a case that few other lawyers would even consider, given the enormity of its size and the difficulty in proving the link between the chemicals and the cluster of leukemia cases.

Although the courtroom drama is compelling, most of the book takes place in the details of the Woburn case, which are shown in minute, sometimes excruciating detail. There are endless motions filed by both sides, innumerable meetings with the judge, constant bickering between the lawyers and their partners, and bottomless financial woes for Schlichtmann’s firm, which does not bring in enough money to finance the case.

Ultimately, the jury exonerates Beatrice Foods and indicts W.R. Grace, but Grace settles with Schlichtmann before the second phase of the trial can begin.

A Civil Action is a detailed and at times difficult. The case is presented in the clearest manner possible and reflects the procedures and machinations that take place in the development and prosecution of the trial. It is nearly impossible for anyone but the lawyers and the judge to keep up with all of the facts, expert testimony, and tens of thousands of pages of documents, and eventually, even they despair at the limits of their own abilities.

Themes of justice, bureaucracy, obsessiveness, and greed emerge in A Civil Action. It will make readers reexamine what they thought they knew about the American legal system and ask themselves hard questions about the faith they would have in their attorneys and a jury of their peers, should they ever find themselves on trial. The book received the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was adapted into a film in 1998.

"Civil Action" is like John Grisham for grownups. Watching it, we realize that Grisham's lawyers are romanticized hotshots living in a cowboy universe with John Wayne values. The real world of the law, this movie argues, has less to do with justice than with strategy and doesn't necessarily arrive at truth. The law is about who wins, not about who should win. The movie co-stars John Travolta and Robert Duvall as the leaders of two opposing legal teams. At issue are the deaths by leukemia of 12 children. Travolta's argument is that the deaths were the result of pollution by two large corporation, W.R. Grace and Beatrice. Duvall, working for Beatrice, argues that neither the pollution nor its results can be proven. He also angles to separate Beatrice from its bedmate, Grace, correctly perceiving that the Grace legal strategy is unpromising.


Beatrice and Grace are real companies, and "A Civil Action" is based on Jonathan Harr's nonfiction best seller, which won the National Book Award. But the movie takes fictional liberties, which have been much discussed in the financial press. In particular, Grace lawyer William Cheeseman (Bruce Norris) is said not to be a doofus in real life. For the facts, read the book or study the case; the movie is more concerned with how the law works, and how perhaps the last thing you want is a lawyer who is committed heart and soul to your cause. What you want is a superb technician.

Duvall plays Jerome Facher, brilliant and experienced, who hides his knowledge behind a facade of eccentricity. He knows more or less what is going to happen at every stage of the case. He reads the facts, the witnesses, the court and his opposition. There is a moment at which he offers the plaintiffs a $20 million settlement, and an argument can be made, I think, that in the deepest recesses of his mind he knows it will not be necessary. He makes it in the same spirit that Vegas blackjack tables offer "insurance"--he thinks he'll win, but is guarding the downside. His style is indirection; his carefully nurtured idiosyncrasies conceal his hand.

Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, the head of a small firm of personal injury attorneys who take on cases they believe they can win. Often their clients are too poor to pay legal fees, but Schlichtmann's firm eats the legal costs itself, hoping for a rich slice of an eventual settlement. Essentially, he's gambling with the firm's money every time he accepts a case. That's why he turns down the delegation of parents who tell about the deaths of their children: He doesn't see enough money in it to justify the risk. (The movie has a hard-boiled discussion of how much various victims are "worth." A white male professional struck down in his prime gives the biggest payoff; a dead child is worth the least of all.) From the point of view of his financial well-being, Schlichtmann makes two mistakes. First, he decides the parents have a moral case. Second, he begins to care too much about justice for them and loses his strategic bearings. (Of course all follows from his discovery that the polluters, who he thought were small, shabby local firms, are actually owned by rich corporations.) The movie, written and directed by Steven Zaillian, doesn't simplify the issues and make Schlichtmann into a romantic hero. He's more the kind of guy you refer to affectionately as "that poor sap." We hear what he hears: the emotion in the voice of one of the mothers (Kathleen Quinlan) who asks him to take the case because "all we want is somebody to apologize to us." And the heartrending story of how one of the boys died, told by his father (David Thornton) in details so sad that Schlichtmann is very deeply moved--which is, perhaps, not the best thing for his clients.


Zaillian is clear about his movie's approach. This is not a film in which a hero attorney beats up the bad guys in a climactic courtroom scene. The movie doesn't even end with its courtroom scene, but has a wry aftermath. No major characters are painted in black-white terms, least of all Duvall's; he is not a man without emotions and sympathies, we sense, but simply a man whose long and wise experience of the law has positioned him above the fray. He's fascinated by the law, by its opportunities and maneuverings, by its realities. Like a chess player, he knows that to win a tournament, it is sometimes wise to offer a draw in a game even when you think you can win it.

Some of the film's tension comes not from the battle between good and evil, but from the struggle between Schlichtmann's firm and its creditors. The small firm eventually sinks $1.4 million into the case, the homes of all the partners are mortgaged and in the background during some scenes their furniture is being removed. William H. Macy plays their accountant, whose function is to announce steady progress toward professional and personal bankruptcy.

This is Zaillian's second film. His first was "Searching for Bobby Fischer" (1993), one of the most absorbing films of recent years, about a child chess prodigy whose great gift might take him to the top of the game--but at what personal price? "A Civil Action" is also about the gulf between skill and justice. In the law as in chess, the better player usually wins. It has nothing to do with which is the better person. The theme of Zaillian's first film, I wrote, was: "What makes us men is that we can think logically. What makes us human is that we sometimes choose not to." That's the message this time, too. There's a subtext: When hiring an attorney, go for the logician.

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