March 10, 2006

A Civil Action

While writing yesterday's review, I realized I never reviewed Jonathan Harr's excellent book, "A Civil Action." To me, this is the model on which other class-action non-fiction books should be based. The movie version of it is very good, but the book is so much richer in detail. Reading the book actually makes you appreciate the movie even more, and it's a great read even if you haven't seen the movie.

The book deals with polluted groundwater in a small Northeast community that sends cancer rates off the charts. It's a result of tanneries and other chemically bad businesses that didn't take care of their waste disposal and were bought up by much larger congolomerates (W. R. Grace and Beatrice). A small-time lawyer takes up the case for a group of families, and he quickly runs up against enormous financial and political obstacles.

First, how do you prove that contaminated groundwater is causing cancer? Well, you have to prove that the water is contaminated and that the source is the company in question, and that involves lots of well-paid experts performing lots of expensive tests that juries will have a hard time understanding (the book makes a nice case for scientific literacy, by the way). And how do you know that what is found in the water causes cancer? A lot of those studies linking certain chemicals with cancer rates have been deeply flawed, and how does a jury know what's flawed and what isn't in peer-reviewed, published scientific literature?

Then you have to figure out how to fend off the avalanche of time-wasting motions and the blizzard of paperwork the big corporation throws at you. Meanwhile, the victims are dying left and right, and you'd like to do something for them to get them medical help quickly, but the company is dragging their feet in the trial. The movie "Class Action" with Gene Hackman was an excellent example of this kind of story, one of my all-time favorites, and "Erin Brockovich" was another example with broader appeal.

And then in the end, it all comes down to the fact that the judge is good friends with the defense counsel or the daughter of the owner of the company being sued or what have you. Or maybe the jury was given the wrong instructions on some minor but crucial point. All this time, the families are wondering what the hell they're going through all this for, why shouldn't they accept an offered settlement, why should they trust their lawyer, etc. It's an ethical hurricane, and one hell of a good read.

Posted by Observer at March 10, 2006 08:26 PM

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