Jonathan Harr - Civil Action

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A Civil Action is a Gripping Legal Thriller!

Oct 6, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Well- written; Captivating; Suspenseful

Cons:No cons at all!

The Bottom Line: This award- winning book is a real page turner! It will keep you captivated!


ďWhether in truth, or in fiction, I have never read a more compelling chronicle of litigation.Ē---- John Grisham

Famed author John Grisham couldnít have said it better! ďA Civil ActionĒ, written by Jonathan Harr, is an incredible work of non- fiction that covers the epic legal battle between the people of Woburn, Massachusetts and two large U.S. corporations, W.G. Grace Chemical Company and Beatrice Foods. Harr, a journalist and teacher, wrote this legal thriller in 1995, summarizing this incredible fight for justice and the ensuing courtroom battle that followed.

Basic Contents of This Book:

If you havenít heard about this case, let me give you the rundown: W.G. Grace Chemical and Beatrice Foods (which owned a local tannery) were known to have dumped toxic chemicals into the Woburn, Mass. Area for many years. In the early 1980ís, several children in the area developed leukemia, and these two corporations were considered top suspects.

Jan Schlichtmann entered the scene next, in a determined effort to save the day and seek justice and reparations for the affected families. Schlichtmann was a prosecuting attorney, and his flashy personality and dogged determination to win this case lead him to all sorts of extremes! Schlichtmann is completely, 100 percent convinced that these two corporations are responsible for the outbreak of leukemia, and he absorbs himself in this journey for justice. This leads to a feeling of overconfidence, at first, that his legal team will have no problem at all when they get their chance in court.

Little did he know just how equally determined the defense attorneys would be!

When a legal firm decides to file a lawsuit against any large corporation, an attorney needs to know just how large of an enemy he/she is up against. These two corporate giants, like most other corporations, were well- prepared to fight these accusations at any cost and salvage what was left of their reputations. Jerome Facher was the leading defense attorney in this case. Backed by thousands and thousands of dollars from the corporate coffers, Facher was determined to make sure that his client was declared not guilty of contaminating the local water supply.

Schlichtmann was outraged that anyone could so shamelessly defend such irresponsible corporate acts. He felt a personal vengeance toward Facher, and the two men almost came to blows on a few occasions. Facherís skill as a defense attorney would have made him seem almost insuperable to most other prosecuting lawyers, but not to Schlichtmann. No matter how dismal the case started to look, Jan Schlichtmann was more determined than ever to win. He even rejected several out of court settlements because he was so convinced that he could win more money in court. What jury, when presented with the evidence, which included many fatalities and countless sick children, could possibly take the side of the corporation? Schlichtmann was sure that he could win a bundle, so he continued to move forward with the case, racking up debts and placing his law firm and his own health in serious jeopardy.

When the time comes for the jury to read its verdict, Schlichtmann is tense and uneasy, knowing that his clientsí fate, and his own, are all at stake. In spite of what seemed like overwhelming evidence, the jury hands down a verdict of not guilty. Judge Skinner (one of the primary villians in this case, in my opinion) almost seems partial to the defense and is, himself, somewhat of an egomaniac. Skinner is stubborn and unwilling to admit that he could make any mistakes, and he shows his impatience with the prosecuting team on many occasions. He sides with the defense.

Instead of licking his wounds and moving on, Schlichtmann continues the fight by scheduling an appeal. During all of this trauma, his life around him is falling apart. His own legal team is starting to get fed up, and Schlichtmann himself loses his home and car, and is forced to live inside the law firm office. Even his clients are getting discouraged and outraged at Schlichtmann, and some of them even decide to file a suit against Schlichtmann himself!

Schlichtmann loses the appeal, and almost loses his mind. All the things that he once had and once enjoyed were now gone. All the days of living the good life, driving his Porsche around Boston, dining in the fancy restaurants, and rubbing elbows with the cultural elite, everything was over. The legal system had failed, in Schlichtmannís eyes. It failed to convict two obviously guilty corporate giants, sending the message that this type of reckless behavior may not be desirable, but it can easily go unpunished if a company has the right amount of cash and can afford the best lawyers.

Final Thoughts:

This is an outstanding book! Itís one of those rare non- fiction writings that keep you completely enthralled from start to finish. I was spellbound as I read this book. Itís nearly 500 pages in length, but I finished it in only a few days.

The reason that the book is so captivating is because of the eccentric people in the case and because of author Jonathon Harrís impeccable writing. When you look at the individuals and the personalities in this book, itís easy to see why itís such a gripping tale! The lawyers and other legal professionals are all egotistical, flamboyant, flashy, cocky, determined, stubborn, irritating, annoying, and yet very interesting and compelling. Add this together with the court case involving the dumping of carcinogenic chemicals into the water supply, and you have all the makings of what would seem like a great fictional novel. The fact that this is not a novel makes the book that much more incredible. Itís hard to believe that all of these events could take place with so much emotion and intensity!

If there is a lesson to be learned in this book, itís that justice is not necessarily always served. Our legal system is very good, and some would argue that itís the best in the world. But that doesnít mean that itís without its flaws. There are still some instances where an obviously guilty party will get away with committing a crime. In this case, I think thatís exactly what happened. I canít see how anyone, after looking at the evidence, could possibly think that these companies were not responsible for the destruction that their chemicals caused. It shows just how slick and conniving a skilled defense attorney can be! It also shows how a judge can exert undue influence on a case. Much like the incredibly incompetent Judge Ito, in the O.J. Simpson case, Judge Skinner is equally deplorable at the courtroom helm, showing obvious favortism to the defense and failing to be impartial, the way a judge is supposed to behave.

A few years ago, there was a Hollywood movie that was made, based on this event. The movie starred John Travolta, in the role of Jan Schlichtmann, and Robert Duvall, in the role as Jerome Facher. The movie was ok, but it failed to capture the intensity of the book. If you have seen the movie, trust me, the book is much, much better!

This book is one you donít want to miss. It was published in 1995 and it won the National Book Critics Circle Award that same year. Itís the type of book that you wonít be able to put down! ďA Civil ActionĒ will consume you from start to finish, and remain in your thoughts for a long, long time.


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