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A Case Without Suitable Closure : A Dedicated Writer, an Obsessed Attorney and the Search for Justice Come Together in the New Book 'A Civil Action'

October 17, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Jan Schlichtmann, personal-injury lawyer on the brink of self-destruction. It is July, 1986, and Schlichtmann's black Porsche 928 has just been repossessed.

His luxury condo, with a view of the Charles River, is about to be foreclosed, his office furniture removed for non-payment of rental fees. Nor has he paid the salaries of his loyal staff in months, nor the cleaning bills for his hand-tailored Dimitri suits and silk Hermes ties, now held hostage by the dry cleaner.

Today, he doesn't even have funds for a cab to the Boston courthouse, so he works up a sweat as he walks in his high-gloss Bally shoes to await the jury's verdict.

Only in dreams would you expect to meet a lawyer like this. One who takes your case on contingency, then spends nine years working so obsessively to win it that he gives up his other cases, his savings, his sex life, his personal possessions and his good credit rating--and then taps the resources of friends--all in hopes that justice will eventually prevail.

And did it?

"Justice is at the bottom of a bottomless pit," a learned lawyer told him during the harrowing days of the trial.

And justice was not to be the relevant issue in this case anyway.

Certainly not for writer Jonathan Harr, who was 36 and simply looking for a subject on which to base his first book when a friend introduced him to Schlichtmann, who was a year younger and had already spent four years and $1 million of mostly borrowed money preparing the case for trial.

Schlichtmann's clients were a cluster of families in Woburn, Mass., whose children were dead or dying of leukemia. His suit alleged that their illness was caused by drinking water contaminated by toxic waste dumped by subsidiaries of Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, two of the country's richest corporations.

Schlichtmann had reason to believe he could win. He'd consulted with some of the world's leading experts on toxic waste, ground water seepage and leukemia; he had underwritten hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of research and tests that his expert consultants had required. All of this assured him that there was enough hard, scientific evidence to sway a jury in his favor. Not to mention the sympathetic effect that would be caused by putting the grieving parents of all those dying children on the witness stand. Even attorneys for the opposition had dabbed at their eyes when the parents testified in pretrial depositions.

Harr knew the minute he met the personal-injury lawyer that this was a character worth writing about--a flashy zealot, naive and sincere, willing to risk his legal and personal life for clients whose cause he believed in.

And the time was right: It was the mid-'80s, the public fascination with legal stories was just about to happen. "L.A. Law" was just hitting the TV screen. John Grisham and Scott Turow hadn't yet published bestsellers. The buzz in media circles, Harr knew, was that anything law-oriented could be a hot property.

Harr asked Schlichtmann for "total access" to the case. That meant he'd be Schlichtmann's shadow wherever the lawyer went: to office meetings, to client meetings, to settlement meetings, to court, to the men's room, to the bank, even on Schlichtmann's dates with women he no longer had time or energy to take to bed.

Schlichtmann agreed.

*

Thus began a nine-year roller coaster ride that boosted both men to elation and then tossed them into despair, as Schlichtmann battled for his own survival and for his clients' cause--and Harr tried to chronicle each bizarre twist and turn.

Both men say they soon came to realize that justice, in cases like this, is not always synonymous with truth.

As one of Schlichtmann's expert consultants, Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, explains it: "Justice is sometimes incapable of finding the truth. Truth is often unknowable--but justice can still be done."

The resulting book, "A Civil Action," recently out from Random House, was finished in 1994, having absorbed almost a decade of Harr's life.

It received excellent reviews. Film rights have been purchased for $1.25 million by Robert Redford's Sundance Films.

Harr, in Los Angeles on a book promotion tour, says he is "relatively rich" as a result and happily contemplating his next ventures.

Schlichtmann, now living in Beverly, Mass., says he is busy rebuilding his law practice and reconstructing his life.

Neither may ever take part in such legal drama again.

The characters in this case are much more compelling than most he's met in fiction, Harr says. Lawyers for Beatrice and Grace--men of high intellect and eccentricity--had lofty reputations and rich clients whose deep pockets they would do anything legal to protect.

William Cheeseman, Harvard graduate, was senior partner at a prestigious Boston firm that represented W.R. Grace, the multinational chemical company. Renowned for his pretrial maneuvering, Cheeseman specialized in finding ways to kill lawsuits before they ever got to court.

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