The film A Civil Action starred John Travolta as plaintiffs’ attorney Schilchtmann. It tells the true story of the plaintiffs’ efforts to establish the liability of two corporate defendants (Beatrice and Grace) for illness and deaths in Woburn Massachusetts. From my layman’s perspective it seems to be an unusual legal drama in that Schilchtmann’s legal work is not represented as particularly brilliant. And there’s one related point here that bothers me.

At the end of the film, Schilchtmann is exhausted by the very expensive litigation; the cost to the plaintiffs’ lawyers was ruinous. He has won a small money judgment for his clients, with no duty of defendants to apologize or explain or clean up the pollution; and the plaintiffs are not happy. But (the film proceeds to tell us) the government takes up the fight and imposes much greater burdens on the defendants, providing a bit of redemption after all. An article (apparently) in a Woburn paper contained this comment:

The film implies that it was Schilchtmann's evidence which brought the EPA into the case and that is dead wrong. The EPA was involved from day one, as was the state's Department of Environmental Quality Engineering.

When planning the litigation of a case like this, in which the government is going to investigate the same facts, why would it make sense for the lawyers to race the government and establish these facts at their own (astronomical) expense. Could Schilchtmann have just waited for the government report and then litigated much more easily?

  • 2
    Just guessing, but there was probably a short statute of limitations for private lawsuits that had to be met.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 22:15
  • It's also possible that the plaintiffs did not trust that the EPA would investigate thoroughly or suspected that the EPA might try to suppress information. I'm speaking generally here without any knowledge of the film or the case, much less of the EPA's actual conduct in its investigation.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 11:05
  • 1
    the central tenet of the book was that the system was rigged against the plaintiffs.
    – Tiger Guy
    Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 13:46
  • @Tiger Guy I don't follow you. The movie also suggested that idea. But why didn't the EPA investigation lighten plaintiffs' load?
    – Chaim
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 0:53
  • @Chaim, I think it just didn't happen before the trial was over.
    – Tiger Guy
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 4:56


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