Hilary Smith

Dr. Birkhoff

CONF 683

10 April 2014

A Civil Action

Recap of Movie: A Civil Action recounts a true story of a personal injury law firm taking on two big corporations on behalf of a few families whose children died of illness due to water contamination from these corporations’ industrial mills and plants. Greedy, adversarial lawyer Jan Schlichtmann bankrupts his small practice researching and building evidence that toxic waste was dumped into the water supply, precipitating the deaths of eight people, including children. Through this ordeal, the human suffering of the victims’ families causes him to take the case to trial in a vengeful battle. He was unable to prove one company’s guilt and only won money for the families, but did not achieve an apology or clean-up of the environment. The victims’ families did not care about money, they only wanted an apology and their community made safe for the future. Neither was achieved until Schlichtmann found definitive evidence of dumping and the EPA took the case on. The companies paid millions to clean up the environment and changed practices to ensure future safety.

How it could be rewritten: Because of the adversarial nature of the legal system, this movie would need to be rewritten from the settlement deal. I would prefer not to include the legal system in any kind of problem-solving process, because it operates on a win-lose, adversarial system rather than collaborating to produce best solutions and practices. However, there are few actionable alternatives with the authority to effect change.

In the settlement deal, a foundation for a collaborative partnership to investigate the connection between practices of local industry and water contamination would be set up. A portion of that fund would also go to developing a participatory and consensus building process:

  • Hire a conflict resolution professional, a legal assistant, and have the settlement include the companies agreeing to participate
  • Build trust through collaborative town hall meetings, grievance sessions, fact finding presentations. It is important blame is not a condemning feature or the participation of the companies will be compromised.
  • Fact find – through the trust and spirit of collaboration built through community and corporate involvement in these meetings, conduct interviews and investigate further links between industry, pollution, and sickness.
    • This is where key witnesses would have to divulge that they dumped toxic chemicals and companies would have to come clean with their waste practices.
  • Convene meetings again and include experts and the EPA. Decide on a plan to identify and clean up the waste.
  • Companies are held responsible for clean-up.
  • The legal advisor helps with drafting bills to be voted into law concerning pollution and environmental practices.
  • Families of the deceased were already paid by the settlement for their grievances, but they have the option to collaborate to make some kind of legacy in honor of their children.



Goal of process: find causes of death, clean up environment to prevent future illness

Research process of getting a superfund site, county elected officials, hospitals/ngo/public health ppl to convene something but no authority but can convene a mediator