|SILVER SCREEN JANUARY FEATURE ARTICLE|
by Rob Waring
| A Civil ActionAnother Government Bailout?
By Rob Waring - February 1999
[Editor's note: The following commentary reveals some plot details. Readers who have not seen the film may want to bookmark this site and return to read this commentary after they have seen the film.]A Civil Action, based largely on a non-fiction book by a plaintiff's attorney, has been described as the most accurate portrayal of civil litigation ever to appear on the silver screen. In the film, a small, but high flying plaintiff's personal injury firm takes on a mass toxic tort case. At the helm is a charismatic and overconfident attorney, played by John Travolta. His nemesis, an eccentric, hard-nosed defense attorney, is chillingly played by Robert Duvall.
The film is much ado about economics: the economics of funding expensive pre-trial investigation and discovery by an undercapitalized small firm working on a contingency fee basis. (The firm can only recover expenses as a result of a settlement with the other side.) There is also the economics ofdisposing of the environmental waste which is the basis for the suit. (It's cheaper just to dump it in a hole in the ground.) Along the way, viewers are treated to the tension of the high stakes poker and puffery that inevitably accompanies big ticket law suits, with deceit, unethical behavior and bad judgment aplenty on both sides.
The film is compelling in part because it tells the story of a group of people trying to do the right thing, correct the harm done by a polluter, gain an apology for the victims and inflict a monetary punishment that will deter future wrongdoing. In spite of the plaintiffs attorney's greed and horrific tactical miscalculations, I suspect the film will improve the public image of the plaintiff's bar. In the end, the protagonist is ground down by a system that seems stacked against him and his clients. The plaintiff's attorney is portrayed as an underdog gambler, whose obscene profits in one case are justified by knockdown punches and financial losses he will take in many other suits. It's a dirty business, but how else is justice to be achieved?
|"In spite of the plaintiffs attorney's greed and horrific tactical miscalculations, I suspect the film will improve the public image of the plaintiff's bar."|
For me, the most noteworthy aspects of the film occurred at the very end. The first was a toss off, mentioned in a single sentence as the terms of the settlement are read in court. The settlement terms called for secrecy. The brevity of this reference was unfortunate, because I doubt many in the film's audience understand just how tragic this term was, and also how commonplace it is in our legal system. Defendants in civil suits routinely buy the silence of those they injure by conditioning settlement on the plaintiff's inability to discuss the case with anyone else. This means that if a corporation or an entire industry has done something to injure many people, information gained in a suit by one victim cannot be shared with others. Also, the public never learns about the wrongdoing and thus the wrongdoers face no public scorn for their actions. (Very few meritorious civil suits gone awry are rescued by the federal government, as this one was.) Such purchased silence, which most plaintiffs and their attorneys reluctantly sell out of either need or greed, can have the effect of forcing each new plaintiff to reinvent to wheel, and each new plaintiff's lawyer to have to finance that reinvention. Thus, I fear audiences for A Civil Action may come away from the film thinking they understand the workings of the litigation system, when in fact they are still missing some very important pieces of the puzzle.
"Thus, I fear audiences for A Civil Action may come away from the film thinking they understand the workings of the litigation system, when in fact they are still missing some very important pieces of the puzzle."
Derision of government agencies, except those connected with the military, was the
cornerstone of Reagan's political strategy. While obviously capitalizing on some current
of public cynicism still flowing from the spring of Watergate, his repeated anecdotal
references to the failures of government agencies from the bully pulpit of the Presidency
also fostered public mistrust in those agencies.
Thus, the conclusion of A
Civil Action contains a long overdue wake-up call to the public,
infrequently seen on the silver screen: big government is sometimes the
only force that can stand up to big business. Our civil justice system is
sometimes inadequate protection from the forces of greed and corruption.
More Sites of Interest
Official studio web site link A Civil Action
The Internet Movie Database Go...
Jan Schlichtmann, A Civil Action- meet the attorney that John Travolta recently portrayed. Hear about his story, his newest cases and his personal magazine
Beyond A Civil Action - Woburn case issues and answers from W.R. Grace and Company.
Scenes from the Making of "A Civil Action" - information and photographs on the making of the film.
A Civil Action - official site from Touchstone.
Civil Action, A (1998) - IMDb page.
Boston Magazine: A Civil Actor - John Travolta talks about his role as a controversial attorney in "A Civil Action."
Photo Gallery - of actors attending a Boston charity screening of locally filmed "A Civil Action."
Hollywood vs. the Truth - Walter Olson's opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal.
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