A Civil Action

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  • Woburn, Massachusettes
  • 1982 Jan Schlichtman filed lawsuit against two multinational corporations in U.S. District Court in Boston
  • clients were six Woburn families, all of whom had a child who had died of leukemia or who was being treated for the illness
  • Schlichtmann charged that W.R. Grace & Company, of New York, and Beatrice Foods Company, of Chicago, had contaminated two municipal wells in East Woburn
  • suit alleged that the well water caused the leukemia cases and numerous other illnesses, including cardiac arrhythmias and disorders of the immune and neurological systems
  • The judge was Walter Jay Skinner
  • Harvard Law ’52, a 58-year-old Yankee Republican who had made his reputation two decades earlier as a prosecutor
  • trial would be divided into three phases
    1. plaintiffs would attempt to show that wells G and H had become contaminated as a
      result of actions by Grace and Beatrice, and that the contamination had occurred
      before the wells were closed in 1979. If the plaintiffs could not persuade the
      jury to issue a finding against either defendant, then the trial would be over.
      But if the jury ruled against one or both defendants, the trial would proceed
    2. the plaintiffs would attempt to show that exposure to contaminated well water resulted in the leukemia cases and the other illnesses alleged in the lawsuit. If the jury found that the well water was not responsible for any illnesses, then the trial would end. But if the jury found that the water was responsible, the trial would move to a third phase
    3. Schlichtmann objected, telling Skinner it was unfair that he would not be able to present his entire case at once. Because the first phase of the trial would be entirely technical — that is, the jurors would be asked to decide solely whether Grace and Beatrice had contaminated the wells prior to 1979, not whether any illnesses had resulted — the families would not testify at all unless there was a second phase. Because they were potential witnesses, they would not even be allowed to attend court sessions, meaning the jurors would not see the people who brought the suit before rendering a verdict.

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