A Civil Action
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"A Civil Action" Summary

By Jonathan Harr

nonfiction | 512 pages | Published in NaN

A Civil Action is a non-fiction book by Jonathan Harr about a water contamination case in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the 1980s. After finding that her child is diagnosed with leukemia, Anne Anderson notices a high prevalence of leukemia, a relatively rare disease, in her city. Eventually she gathers other families and seeks a lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, to consider their options.Schlichtmann originally decides not to take the case due to both the lack of evidence and a clear defendant. Later picking up the case, Schlichtmann finds evidence suggesting trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of the town's water supply by Riley Tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods; a chemical company, W. R. Grace; and another company named Unifirst.In the course of the lawsuit Schlichtmann gets other attorneys to assist him. He spends lavishly as he had in his prior lawsuits, but the length of the discovery process and trial stretch all of their assets to their limit.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

"A Civil Action" follows the legal battle of a small-town lawyer against powerful corporations over water contamination.


"A Civil Action" by Jonathan Harr is a gripping non-fiction book that delves into the true story of a legal case that took place in the 1980s. The book provides an in-depth look at the legal and environmental implications of a lawsuit filed against two large corporations accused of polluting the water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. Harr skillfully weaves together legal drama, environmental issues, and human elements, making it a compelling read for anyone interested in law, environmental justice, and the impact of corporate negligence on communities.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview and Setting

The story unfolds in Woburn, a small town in Massachusetts, where the residents begin to notice a high incidence of leukemia among its children. As more cases of the disease emerge, families become increasingly concerned about the possible link between the leukemia cases and the town's water supply. The narrative follows the legal battle that ensues when families decide to take legal action against two major corporations, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, alleging that the companies' dumping of toxic chemicals had contaminated the town's water.

Main Characters

The book introduces several key characters, including:

Jan SchlichtmannA tenacious and ambitious lawyer representing the families
Anne AndersonA mother whose son is diagnosed with leukemia
Jerome FacherA seasoned and cunning defense attorney
Charles NessonA law professor who provides guidance to Schlichtmann

Story Points Over Chapters

Chapters 1-5: Discovery of Leukemia Cases in Woburn

The book sets the stage by introducing the town of Woburn and the alarming number of leukemia cases among the children. Concerned families begin to suspect a connection between the contaminated water and the illness.

Jan Schlichtmann, a determined and driven lawyer, takes on the case, hoping for a quick and lucrative settlement. However, he soon realizes the complexities and challenges involved in taking on such powerful defendants.

Chapters 11-15: Building the Case

Schlichtmann and his legal team gather evidence and witnesses to build a strong case against the corporations. The legal battle intensifies as they face resistance and manipulation from the opposing side.

Chapters 16-20: Setbacks and Struggles

As the case progresses, Schlichtmann faces numerous setbacks, including financial strain, internal conflicts within his team, and the emotional toll of representing the families. The legal battle becomes increasingly arduous.

Chapters 21-25: Courtroom Drama

The narrative unfolds in the courtroom, where the legal teams present their arguments and evidence. The trial becomes a high-stakes battle of wits and strategies, with unexpected turns and intense confrontations.

Chapters 26-30: Unforeseen Complications

The case takes unexpected turns as new revelations and complications emerge. Schlichtmann and the families are faced with daunting challenges that threaten to derail their pursuit of justice.

Main Events

The main events in "A Civil Action" revolve around the legal battle between the families of Woburn and the powerful corporations, the emotional and financial struggles faced by the families and their legal representation, and the courtroom drama that unfolds during the trial. The book vividly portrays the complexities of the legal system, the ethical dilemmas involved in pursuing justice, and the human cost of environmental negligence.

Themes and Insights

Corporate Responsibility and Environmental Justice

The book explores the theme of corporate responsibility and the consequences of environmental negligence. It sheds light on how large corporations can impact communities through their actions and raises important questions about accountability and justice in cases of environmental harm.

Harr delves into the ethical and moral dilemmas faced by attorneys representing clients in high-stakes legal battles. The book offers insights into the challenges of maintaining professional integrity and ethical conduct while navigating the complexities of the legal system.

Community Resilience and Solidarity

Through the lens of the Woburn families, "A Civil Action" highlights the resilience and solidarity of communities in the face of adversity. It portrays the unwavering determination of the families to seek justice for their children and the support they find within their community.

Reader's Takeaway

"A Civil Action" offers readers a thought-provoking exploration of environmental justice, legal ethics, and the human impact of corporate negligence. It serves as a compelling reminder of the power of perseverance and the complexities of seeking justice in the face of formidable challenges.


Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action" is a masterfully crafted narrative that delves into the intricacies of a landmark legal case with far-reaching implications. Through its exploration of legal drama, environmental issues, and human resilience, the book leaves a lasting impression on readers, prompting reflection on the intersection of law, ethics, and corporate accountability.

A Civil Action FAQ

  1. What is 'A Civil Action' about?

    A Civil Action is a non-fiction book by Jonathan Harr that tells the true story of a legal case involving environmental pollution and its impact on the residents of Woburn, Massachusetts. The case revolves around the contamination of drinking water with toxic chemicals and the legal battle that ensued.

  2. Is 'A Civil Action' based on a true story?

    Yes, 'A Civil Action' is based on a true story. The book chronicles the real-life legal case of Anderson v. Cryovac, a landmark environmental lawsuit that took place in the 1980s.

  3. Who is the author of 'A Civil Action'?

    The author of 'A Civil Action' is Jonathan Harr. He extensively researched and documented the legal case and its impact on the community in his book.

  4. What are the main themes in 'A Civil Action'?

    The main themes in 'A Civil Action' include environmental justice, corporate responsibility, legal ethics, and the impact of pollution on communities. The book also delves into the complexities of civil litigation and the pursuit of justice.

  5. Has 'A Civil Action' been adapted into a film?

    Yes, 'A Civil Action' was adapted into a film in 1998, starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall. The movie follows the events depicted in the book and portrays the legal battle surrounding the pollution case.