Book: A Civil Action

Cover image

A Civil Action

Author: Jonathan Harr
Publisher: Vintage

Two of the nation’s largest corporations stand accused of causing the deaths of children. Representing the bereaved parents, the unlikeliest of heroes emerges: a young, flamboyant Porsche-driving lawyer who hopes to win millions of dollars and ends up nearly losing everything—including his sanity.

A Civil Action is the searing, compelling tale of a legal system gone awry—one in which greed and power fight an unending struggle against justice. Yet it is also the story of how one man can ultimately make a difference. With an unstoppable narrative power reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, A Civil Action is an unforgettable reading experience that leaves the reader both shocked and enlightened.


In America, when somebody does you wrong, you take ‘em to court. W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods had been dumping a cancer-causing industrial solvent into the water table of Woburn, Massachusetts, for years; in 1981, the families of eight leukemia victims sued. However, A Civil Action demonstrates powerfully that—even with the families’ hotshot lawyers and the evidence on their side—justice is elusive, particularly when it involves malfeasance by megacorporations. Much of the legal infighting can cause the eyes to glaze. But the story is saved by great characters: the flawed, flamboyant Jan Schlichtmann and his group of bulldogs for the prosecution; Jerome Facher, the enigmatic lawyer for Beatrice, who proves to be more than a match; John J. Riley, the duplicitous, porcine tannery owner; and a host of others. It’s impossible not to feel the drama of this methodical book, impossible not to grieve for the parents who lost children, and impossible not to share Schlichtmann’s desperation as he runs out of money. A Civil Action reads like one long advertisement for a few well-placed Molotov cocktails. (But that wouldn’t make for a very long book, now would it?)

Related Works

Album:A Civil Action

A Civil Action

Danny Elfman

How would you like to pinch-hit for Mark McGwire? Danny Elfman reportedly faced a similar dilemma with A Civil Action: he stepped in to score Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Jonathan Harr’s bestseller when the legendary composer Ennio Morricone bowed out. Elfman’s score is an amalgam of a number of modern influences: edgy, percussive minimalism, haunting, effective choral flourishes, and electronically generated/altered elements are combined with a spare use of the orchestra to create a work that relies more on mood than on melody. The score’s atmospherics…

Film:A Civil Action

A Civil Action

Steven Zaillian

Jan Schlichtmann is a cynical, high-priced personal injury attorney who only takes big-money cases he can safely settle out of court. Though his latest case at first appears straightforward, Schlichtmann soon becomes entangled in an epic legal battle…one where he’s willing to put his career, reputation, and all that he owns on the line for the rights of his clients! Also featuring Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, and John Lithgow—this gripping, widely acclaimed hit delivers edge-of-your-seat entertainment!

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