The Real People of 'A Civil Action' Try Moving On

By Shulman, Ken | Newsweek, January 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Real People of 'A Civil Action' Try Moving On


Shulman, Ken, Newsweek


If you read jonathan harr's true- life best seller "A Civil Action"--and 1.5 million people did--you'll never forget the Woburn case. If you didn't read it, the new John Travolta movie isn't a bad introduction. There were the grieving parents of a small Massachusetts town, suspicious that so many of their children had died of leukemia. There was Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta), the flashy lawyer they hired to prove Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace had dumped poisonous chemicals into the drinking water. And then there was the court battle--a triumph for no one and, for Schlichtmann, a harrowing downward spiral. What do the real-life players of "Action" think of their treatment in the book and movie? And where have their lives taken them now? An update:

Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta)Plaintiffs' attorney

During the Woburn trial, Schlichtmann was a man obsessed--refusing to settle even as his life and career bottomed out. Afterward, he spent years in Hawaii, starting up, of all things, an energy-efficient lighting company. He refers to this time as his "wilderness years." "I ran away from the whole experience," he says. "I tried to start a new life without the law, but I was seduced back into it by well-meaning friends." In 1993 Schlichtmann returned to Boston, and married. The couple and their two sons live in a home on a cliff above the sea in Beverly, Mass. The Woburn case, says Schlichtmann, "affected me on every level that a human being can be affected. It wasn't until years later that I came to embrace it, and to see it as a source of inspiration."

Schlichtmann currently works as an attorney with Thomas Kiley, and speaks to legal and civic groups across the country about the Woburn case. His focus is still on issues of environmental contamination, but his M.O. has changed; instead of lawsuits, Schlichtmann looks for mediation. "I no longer approach these cases in a narrow, confrontational way," he says. "Now I look for a consensus. The Woburn case was a war, fought with all of the instruments that the law allows. I've come to realize that we cannot afford these wars. Because the first victim in these wars is truth."

Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall)

Attorney for Beatrice Foods

Jerome Facher is still a senior partner at Hale and Dorr in Boston. He still teaches at Harvard Law School, and still suffers a broken heart each year watching the Boston Red Sox from his first-baseline seats.

Facher thought Harr's book was compelling, but biased in the plaintiffs' direction. He found the treatment of Judge Walter J. Skinner particularly skewed. "The word around here about Judge Skinner has always been that he gives you an extremely fair shake, but never a break." And he says his children thought Harr made him out to be less "warm and fuzzy than they would have liked. …

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