Civil Action

A Civil Action is a 1998 film, starring John Travolta (as plaintiff's attorney Jan Schlichtmann) and Robert Duvall, based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Harr. Both the book and the film are based on the real-life case of Anderson v. Cryovac that took place in Woburn, Massachusetts in the 1980s.


Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) is a successful lawyer who has started his own practice. Early legal victories have made him wealthy and one of Boston's most eligible bachelors. All of this begins to collapse after Jan begins activity on one of his firm's cases, a lawsuit on behalf of the parents of deceased children in a small industrial town against the companies they believe to have polluted their water. The pollutant in question is trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, and it appears to have caused fatal cases of leukemia and cancer, as well as a wide variety of other health problems, among the citizens of the town.

Jan believes that this case will be easily won, resulting in a fortune for him and the families and prestige for his firm. However, the huge expenses in both time and money incurred in the class action suit soon begin to take their toll on his finances, ambitions, and career.

Purity of Values Wins

A Civil Action, based on a true-life story, a highly successful personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, who likes to negotiate big settlements for his clients, represents the families of several children who died of leukemia. Jan is touched by several parents' pleas, and decides to check out the polluting factories that might be responsible. When he discovers that one of them is a subsidiary of the big conglomerate Beatrice Foods, Jan convinces his partners to take on the case. During the trial, Jan contends not only with his well-financed judicial adversaries, but with the fact that by taking on the case he is forcing his own associates into deep financial debt, threatening their very livelihood.

It turns out that he not only loses the case, but his associates abandon him, and he himself is forced to move towards bankruptcy. However, in that impoverished state he perceives a new way to pursue the polluters. Then through a series of events, the case is renewed through other advocates, the victims win, and they are compensated by the courts for the amount of $69 million.

We can look at the outcome of the case as life responding to the purity of Jan's values. He was at first an intelligent and clever attorney, driven by money. His higher values and idealism were buried beneath that attraction. He then however, takes on a case -- i.e. the plight of the victims of water pollution -- that moves him emotionally and idealistically.

And yet here too he is at first motivated by the possibility of a big settlement in order to make a personal fortune. Though he is tempted, his ideals of justice for the victims prevents him from doing so. Yet, interestingly he is at the same time destroying the people who are working with him, forcing them into near financial ruin, in order to pursue the case against an opposition with deep pockets.

It turns out that he loses the case in part because though his idealism is strong when it comes to the victims, he is still insensitive toward the plight of his own people. In other words, he is still exhibiting negative, even mercenary attitudes when it comes to money -- despite the fact that he has refused a settlement with the opposition -- and therefore life responds negatively in kind. I.e. life does not cooperate and he loses. In fact, the irony is that denying a lucrative settlement for the victims, while idealistically positive, causes his own staffers to suffer. And yet is only when he himself is driven into near bankruptcy that he is able to come up with the solution that leads to the resolution of the case in favor of the victims.

With his associates abandoning him, and now reduced to poverty, he is able to more fully and finally act from his idealism, i.e. his sense of justice, which are in essence his deep values. With the money taint gone, his consciousness was free to deal more purely with the issues at hand.

In that state, he was able to perceive a new strategy to solve the case. By moving away from money influence, he could think rationally, even intuitively, which enabled him to quickly come up with a plan that enabled him to find the man who provides the damning evidence that enabled him (through the EPA) to win the follow-up case. Life had in essence finally responded to his untainted idealism, by presenting his mind with a new perspective and insight on the direction to take the case.

Since he now had no money of his own, he was not able to pursue the follow-up case that he initiated through his intuition. Rather he had to send the new evidence he had gathered to the EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency), who then instigated the follow-up case. They then won a vast settlement for the victims - even though Jan was no longer directly involved. Thus, life brought a huge settlement to the deserved victims only when the case was taken out of his hands. (That way his idealism could shine through and pave the way to a new strategy and new evidence that paved the way for victory. His old consciousness of money taint would not interfere.)

When a value is pure and perfect, life will respond to it. Jan valued that justice come to the victims, and with great passion was able to device an intuitive strategy that won the day. Overcoming his mercenary attitudes toward money enabled him to overcome a wanting attitude that had once disturbed the purity of ideals.