DiscoverLaw on FilmA Civil Action (Guest: Jennifer Corinis) (episode 17)
A Civil Action (Guest: Jennifer Corinis) (episode 17)

A Civil Action (Guest: Jennifer Corinis) (episode 17)

Update: 2024-01-16


A Civil Action (1998) is based on Jonathan Harr’s critically acclaimed book of the same name. Written and directed by Steve Zaillian, the film starts John Travolta, and features supporting performances by Robert Duvall (who was nominated for an Oscar), William H. Macy,  James Gandolfini, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, and Tony Shalhoub. The film tells the true the story of the court battle over environmental pollution in Woburn, MA, in the 1970s and 1980s, where trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent used in industrial operations, contaminated the local water supply, leading to numerous fatal cases of leukemia (including in small children) and other health problem for Woburn residents. Personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, brought suit on behalf of a group of victim families against two large corporations, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, to hold them responsible for the pollution (a third company previously settled). But the suit ran into dogged resistance from large and powerful law firms on the other side, including WilmerHale (then Hale and Dorr) and one of its star litigators, Jerome ("Jerry") Facher (Robert Duvall). The film offers a dark view of the U.S. legal system's ability to uncover the truth and provide justice to victims. I'm joined by Jennifer (Jen) Corinis, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig, who has extensive experience litigating cases in the private sector and as an attorney for the U.S. government.


0:00         Introduction
5:29         Can law remedy pain and suffering?
7:18         Who makes a "good" victim in a personal injury suit
13:04      Why Jan Schlichtmann takes up a case no one else wants
17:23      Litigating against large corporations
19:33      The different approaches of Schlichtmann and the legendary Jerry Facher
23:19      The Rule 11 motion
26:40       Bifurcating liability and damages
35:15       What might have motivated the jury
37:47        Proving contamination with scientific evidence and expert testimony
41:35        Schlictmann's  problematic handling of a settlement offer
48:44        Anne Anderson and Woburn’s other advocates
56:53         Is a court the place to look for the truth?
1:02:07     Comparison with the big tobacco litigation
1:07:40     Subsequent litigation and later events

Further reading:

Blomquist, Robert F., “Bottomless Pit: Toxic Trials, the American Legal Profession, and Popular Perceptions of the Law,” 81 Cornell L. Rev. 953 (1996)

Chase, Anthony, “Civil Action Cinema,” 1999 L. Rev. Mich. St. U. Det. C.L. 945 (1999)

Harr, Jonathan, A Civil Action (1995)

Mayer, Dob, “Lessons in Law from ‘A Civil Action,’” 14 J. of Legal Studies Education 113 (1998)

Schlictmann, Jan R., “Law and the Environment: Reflections on Woburn,” 24 Seton Hall Legis. J. 265 (2000)




Law on Film is created and produced by Jonathan Hafetz. Jonathan is a professor at Seton Hall Law School. He has written many books and articles about the law. He has litigated important cases to protect civil liberties and human rights while working at the ACLU and other organizations. Jonathan is a huge film buff and has been watching, studying, and talking about movies for as long as he can remember.
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A Civil Action (Guest: Jennifer Corinis) (episode 17)

A Civil Action (Guest: Jennifer Corinis) (episode 17)

Jonathan Hafetz