Arrogance cost Jan Schlichtmann the victory he sought in the Woburn toxic-waste trial
11 years ago. But never mind. Now Hollywood's A Civil Action is turning him
into a winner.
The set is supposed to be off-limits, and I've had no luck persuading the
publicist to give me a press pass. So, with a book of maps open in the
passenger seat of my ancient Corolla, I set off in search of the former
Metropolitan State Hospital, where John Travolta, Robert Duvall, et al. are
filming some of the most crucial scenes of A Civil Action.
It's nearly sunset, and the abandoned, sprawling Waltham facility has a spooky
feel. Ahead of me, I see a brick building with a tall smokestack. I get out,
walk around. This is standing in for the tannery that allegedly polluted
Woburn's drinking water. Here and there are piles of greenish hides that, if
this were an actual tannery, would later be transformed into leather.
I move around to the other side. Stacks of wooden pallets. A few rusted-out
55-gallon barrels. An old green truck with
"J. Riley Co. Leather Manufacturers" emblazoned on the doors. I look up; and
there, on the front of the smokestack, are the giant letters J. RILEY CO.,
commanding these empty grounds the way the real tannery's smokestack once rose
imposingly -- and malodorously -- over East Woburn.
In truth, Hollywood's version of the Riley tannery doesn't look much like the
real thing, from its hillside setting (the actual tannery was located on a flat
expanse bordering a swamp) to the smokestack lettering itself (the original
said J.J. RILEY CO.; the film crew inexplicably dropped a J).
The biggest difference, though, lies not in any physical misrepresentations
but rather in what the movie means for the career and reputation of the lawyer
who is the central figure of A Civil Action: Jan Richard Schlichtmann,
who represented eight Woburn families afflicted by deadly leukemia and other
health problems in a landmark 1986 federal-court trial.
Back then, Schlichtmann's arrogance and courtroom bumbling may have cost his
clients millions of dollars, and it left him bankrupt and nearly destroyed
Today, he lives in an oceanfront home in an exclusive section of Beverly. The
gossip columns of the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald track
his -- and Travolta's -- every move. The National Law Journal recently
published a front-page puff piece. He got a reported $250,000 for his
cooperation with the film. He lectures. He appears in fashion ads. People
suffering from pollution-caused illnesses seek him out.
In short, Schlichtmann, now 46, has managed to achieve through the cult of
celebrity what eluded him in the courtroom. Never mind that the 1995 book by
Jonathan Harr on which the movie is based is unstinting in exposing
Schlichtmann's flaws. Never mind that, if the buzz is to be believed, the movie
will treat Schlichtmann with a complexity and nuance that are rare for
Hollywood. None of that matters, because Travolta's a star, baby. And so, at
long last, is Jan Schlichtmann.
"He's flying pretty high because of the movie business," says Harr. "Jan loves
to be in the limelight."
My own perspective comes from having covered the case for the Woburn Daily
Times Chronicle from 1983, not long after Schlichtmann filed the suit,
through 1989, by which time the appeals process had pretty much played itself
out. Though I give Schlichtmann enormous credit for his tenacity in pursuing a
case that many observers thought would never make it into the courtroom, that
overwhelming drive had a dark side that hurt everyone he touched -- including
the families whose cause he championed.
The Woburn story begins in the spring of 1979, when it was discovered that the
two wells that supplied East Woburn's drinking water were contaminated with
industrial solvents. Within months, the contamination was linked to huge plumes
of polluted ground water. When investigators later found that neighborhoods
receiving most of their water from those two wells also suffered from an
unusually high number of leukemia cases, Woburn became a national symbol of
Schlichtmann, then a young medical-malpractice lawyer, sued three companies
that had been identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as being
responsible for polluting the wells:
UniFirst, an industrial dry-cleaning operation that used solvents.
Schlichtmann quickly settled out of court with UniFirst for $1.1 million, but
none of his clients saw any of it. Instead, it was folded into his ongoing
investigation of Grace and Beatrice -- an investigation that he hoped would
result in a court award of hundreds of millions of dollars.
W.R. Grace, which operated a factory that manufactured
food-processing equipment, and which used solvents to clean machinery and to
Beatrice Foods, which owned the Riley tannery and an adjacent
undeveloped property that, Schlichtmann claimed, had been used as a chemical
Yet Schlichtmann blew it before the trial could even begin.
Not long before jury selection got under way, Schlichtmann and Beatrice's
lawyers began talking about a settlement. It would have made perfect sense. For
one thing, though Schlichtmann loved to talk about his quest for justice, the
case against Beatrice had nothing to do with justice. Beatrice had merely
assumed the liability of the tannery's previous owner, John Riley, when it
bought the facility a few months before the pollution was discovered. For
another, Schlichtmann's case against the tannery was weak. He had no evidence
that the tannery had ever used trichloroethylene, the principal chemical at
issue in the trial; and, as would later become clear, he had no convincing
theory as to how chemicals on tannery property could ever wind up in the wells.
Finally, he would have to go up against Beatrice's extraordinarily able trial
lawyer, Jerome Facher, chief of litigation at the Boston law firm of Hale and
But Schlichtmann, visions of unimaginable riches dancing in his head, walked
away from Beatrice's proposed $8 million settlement -- $1 million per
family. And he reportedly never told his clients about it, apparently because
he cut off negotiations before a firm offer could be placed on the table.
The trial itself was a comedy of errors, with the soft-spoken Facher
undermining the credibility of Schlichtmann's witnesses so effectively that he
not only destroyed Schlichtmann's case against Beatrice, but seriously damaged
the case against Grace as well -- even though Grace employees and ex-employees
admitted they had used trichloroethylene and dumped it out in back of the
Schlichtmann's shortcomings were never more obvious than in the testimony of
his poorly prepared lead witness, George Pinder, a nationally recognized
hydrogeologist whose role was to explain how contaminated ground water beneath
the Beatrice and Grace properties flowed into the drinking-water wells.
Pinder put forth a bizarre theory that the wells couldn't have drawn water
from the heavily polluted Aberjona River, on whose banks they had been drilled,
yet could readily pull water from the Beatrice property, on the other side of
the river and some distance away. Facher easily -- and brutally -- exposed
Pinder's testimony as erroneous. Harr, in A Civil Action, describes
Pinder's mistake as an honest one, and I believe him. But at the time, Pinder
came off as someone who had been caught concocting a tale to benefit his
client. (Government tests later revealed that the wells pulled about 40 percent
of their water from the river, but that a considerable quantity of toxins from
beneath the Grace and Beatrice properties had nevertheless found their way into
With Schlichtmann's case thus damaged, the denouement came with an air of
inevitability. Following a 78-day trial, the jury exonerated Beatrice, but
found that Grace had negligently polluted the wells. However, because the
verdict showed that the jury failed to understand Judge Walter Jay Skinner's
highly technical, confusingly worded written instructions, Skinner threw it out
and ordered a new trial. Schlichtmann and Grace's lawyers instead reached a
settlement for the same $8 million he presumably could have gotten from
Beatrice before the trial even began. Schlichtmann included in the settlement
five additional families he was representing separately in state court. After
legal expenses, each family received an average of about $300,000.
Schlichtmann's partisans, including to some extent Jon Harr, point to the
conduct of Judge Skinner and to misconduct on the part of John Riley's lawyer
as the key elements in the trial's unsatisfactory conclusion. That's not how I
saw it. Though Skinner clearly made a mistake with his instructions to the
jury, and though he obviously lost patience with Schlichtmann from time to
time, what happened in court had much to do with Schlichtmann and very little
to do with Skinner.
And though it was later proved that Riley and his lawyer (but not Beatrice's
lawyers) had improperly withheld from Schlichtmann reports about tests that had
been conducted on the tannery property, those reports were of dubious value.
That's because Skinner, in a post-trial decision, had ruled Pinder's testimony
was so lacking in credibility that it couldn't be considered as evidence -- and
that ruling was upheld by the appeals court. Since Schlichtmann, because of
Pinder, had missed his one chance to show that ground water beneath the tannery
property flowed into the wells, what good could it possibly have done him to
show how the ground water had become polluted in the first place?
"The system worked just the way it was supposed to. Frankly, I don't think
there's one moral lesson to be gained from this case," says Jerry Facher, now
72 and still working. Facher's been out to the set several times and has had
dinner at the Four Seasons with Robert Duvall, who's portraying him in the
movie. Facher also stood with Schlichtmann for a joint interview that will be
included in a promotional film. Sparks reportedly flew, especially from Facher,
who's never forgiven Schlichtmann for once having publicly (and spuriously)
accused him of misconduct; but Facher says that "we managed to be civil."
Ironically, though most of the families whom Schlichtmann represented have
remained close to him, Anne Anderson, the most public symbol of the Woburn
tragedy, has not. Anderson, whose son Jimmy died of leukemia, fell out with
Schlichtmann many years ago, accusing him of failing to keep the families fully
informed and of pursuing the case primarily for his own aggrandizement.
"He's so enamored of himself that he forgot the cause," says Anderson. "It had
to be his victory -- not ours, his. That's the ego in him. I'm just saying it
took hold of him that way, and he lost sight of what it was all about. It was
about the suffering of children."
Schlichtmann himself was not interviewed for this article. He declined to call
even after I dropped by his house and handed a business card to his wife. Nor
did he return a follow-up call to his Andover law office before deadline.
Back at Metropolitan State Hospital, four kids are walking a dog.
"Do you know when John's coming?" one of them asks.
"John who?" I reply; then the light goes on: "John Travolta?"
Jon Harr recalls that Jerry Facher once called the movie "the fourth degree
of separation." First there were the actual events; then the trial; then the
book; and, soon, the film. It will be by far the most important element in
establishing Jan Schlichtmann's public persona, Harr says: even though the book
has been on bestseller lists for more than a year, it's still sold fewer than a
million copies. By contrast, the filmmakers expect some 20 million people to
see the movie.
"He's going to be captured on celluloid," says Harr. "And that will be the
Except for those of us who know better.
For more information,
Dan Kennedy maintains an archive of resources on the Woburn toxic-waste tragedy at
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here