Business Law

Civil action is a good example of a movie that shows everyday court practices against big industrial companies, which make a big negative impact on environment.  Movie is based on the true events that happened in New England, 1981.As a result of the drinking-water pollution caused by two chemical companies in Woburn, Massachusetts eight children died because of leukemia.

But this was not the only suit brought against W.R. Grace company. The company also produced insulation with a name zonolite, which contained asbestos.  As it’s well known asbestos is considered to be toxic, as it penetrates to man’s breathing system and lungs and usually causes pulmonic diseases. The company worried that a label of asbestos presence in the insulation will affect sales of zonolite, so the company lawyers fought hard for the permission to keep these labels off the product and to avoid any legislative regulations. But the company representatives knew that this type of insulation got into the list of harmful materials as far back as in 1963:

“The Grace plant used small amounts of solvents (or VOCs) which were common substances used for metal degreasing. Employees disposed of some waste solvents on the ground between 1960 and the mid-1970s. This was the standard industry disposal method at the time.

These disposal activities resulted in the contamination of groundwater on Grace's property. Grace and its employees were unaware that this type of disposal could cause groundwater contamination.” (from Events Related to the Trial: Beyond A Civil Action - Woburn Issues & Answers)

Few year later, in 1984 the W.R.  Grace company had become 1.5 billion $ multinational company specializing in chemical and construction products. Understandably it became more complicated to enforce it to observe ecological regulations. With funds like that of W.R. grace it often seems that such companies become above the law and avoid it.

The problem that ecological authorities face worldwide and in the USA as well concern the issues with pollution caused by big industrial companies. It refers to the case with W.R. Grace Company that made a decision about dumping the T.C.E. into the river behind the plant.  As a result water contamination became the reason of many cancer issues that happened in the town nearby and that caused death of kids.

Here we see how the concept of legal and open business is broken. In a pursuit of maximum profit big companies don’t care about environment and the impact of pollution they cause on the surrounding neighborhoods, and always try to spend as less expenses on environment protection and waste utilization as possible. Breaking the law and bribing local medical and ecological authorities is cheaper and less fussy for them than to utilize industrial waste. But as it’s well-known negligence that causes environmental and health issues is a serious crime.

From the very beginning of the movie we see that companies are ready to do their best to save their image and customers. The families who became the victims of the water contaminated by the factories said to the lawyer that they didn’t care about money, but they wanted an official apology from W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. Instead the lawyer suggested that the companies make payoffs to the victims of the disaster that happened in Woburn.

As he said the official apology made by the companies would cultivate an ideal soil for lots of torts from the side of others who had ever any relation to the drinking water in Woburn, that would lead to the bankruptcy of the companies. From this angle the behavior of the lawyer was not ethical at all, but practical and was led by mercantilism.

The practices that the W.R. Grace company used in court didn’t give any hope and opportunities for the plaintiffs to win the case. The lawyers of the company always found amendments that allowed to pass all existing industrial regulations legislature or to reduce the penalties to minimum. As a result the lawyers, hired by the companies-defendants, brought an enormous number of cases and resources to the court’s fray.

Because of the legislative “red tape” the case was removed to the federal court and was heard by Judge Walter Skinner, who was in  close relationships with Facher (company’s owner)  and who scorned lawyers that worked on personal injury cases. The decision made the judge had quite clear evidence that the trial was unobjective one:

“The answers to those questions expressed the jury's view that the evidence established with respect to W. R. Grace & Co.:

1.      That trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene were disposed of at the Grace site after October 1, 1964 and substantially contaminated the City of Woburn Wells G and H prior to May 22, 1979;

2.      That it could not be determined from the evidence when was the earliest time that these chemicals disposed of at the Grace site after October 1, 1964 made a substantial contribution to the contamination of Wells G and H;

3.      That the contamination of Wells G and H was caused by the negligence of Grace in disposing of both trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene;

4.      That the earliest time at which the substantial contribution of the wells was caused by the negligent conduct of the defendant was September 1973 as to trichloroethylene, but could not be determined by a preponderance of the evidence with respect to tetrachloroethylene.

…. The jury's answer to question 2 raises serious questions as to how it arrived at the answers to questions 1 and 4. Furthermore, comparison of the answer to question 4 with the evidence in the case raises a serious question that the jury may have given the time at which the defendant's conduct became negligent rather than the time at which the wells first became contaminated as a result of such negligence. Proceeding to the second stage of the case with these questions unresolved would, in my view, present insuperable difficulties….

…Accordingly, I reluctantly conclude that the only solution to the present problem is to grant a new trial. I have in mind that two-thirds of the recent five-month segment of this trial was devoted to evidence concerning Beatrice Foods, the other defendant. This defendant has been eliminated from the case.” (from MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON THE MOTION

OF W. R. GRACE & CO. FOR A NEW TRIAL  September 17, 1986 SKINNER, D.J.)

After the trial, that failed for lawyer of negligence victims, Schlictmann nevertheless finds the evidence that there were toxic materials on the industrial site owned by Beatrice Foods. This discovery lead to the clear witnessed fact that owner of the tannery broke the law in the court, by committing perjury. He had quite clear arguments and facts enough for a new trial:

“Compared to the Beatrice site, which abuts the wells and is in marsh on extremely soft and porous ground, the Grace site is located on hard-packed ground on a plateau completely out of sight of the marsh and wells and eight times further away (S.A. 201). Nor did W.R. Grace, which operated a machine shop at its site (S.A. 202), have any great demand for water, or any natural acquaintance with groundwater supply and the operation of wells.

In fact Grace did not know that Wells G and H had been installed, had never been specifically told by public health authorities that pollution on its land would pollute the groundwater, and had never received notice of any kind suggesting a relationship between its property and the municipal wells (S.A. 203)…

…In fact, what is highly extraordinary in this case is that this defendant had specific information far beyond what the ordinary landowner would have about the aquifer, the operation of wells, the connection of the water under its land to the wells, and about the application of public health laws and regulations to its property (S.A. 204).”(from  Excerpts from Brief for thePlaintiffs-Appellants, Anne Anderson v. Beatrice Foods Co. 1986)

 Still, the subjective judge, rejects granting of a new trail: "When a biased judge and plenty of perjury are mixed into the brew, the outcome can only be more victims and more disaster but little or no justice."

  As we see, watching the movie, the problems shown mostly have a personal side. The court trial is primary shown from the personal perception of the events and their impacts on people. Even if to argue about the unethical behavior of the lawyers who defended the interested of the industrial companies and who cared only about money on the hand with their customers we understand that the core of this problem is deeper than we can even think.

The environment regulations that are established to control production or industrial businesses often seem to be ineffective if it’s about big companies. The only way to solve these kind of issues and to prevent environment contamination caused by industrial waste in future is to establish strict government monitoring over the waste control on industrial sites as well as to inspect them regularly and develop flexible legislature that will make everyone equal before the law and will give everyone equal opportunities and rights once being trailed in the court.


Beyond A Civil Action - Woburn Issues & Answers, article (available on web:

Asimow, Michael In Toxic Tort Litigation, Truth Lies at the Bottom of a Bottomless Pit   Article (available on