Anne Anderson, et al. v. W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods: 1986
Anne Anderson, et al. v. W.R. Grace and
Beatrice Foods: 1986
Plaintiff: Anne Anderson et al.
Defendant: W.R. Grace and Company, Beatrice Foods, Unifirst Company
Plaintiff Claim: Contamination of public water resulting in deaths and serious illnesses
Chief Defense Lawyer: Michael Keating
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Jan Schlictmann
Judge: Walter Jay Skinner
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Trial: March 10-May 26, 1986
Verdict: The jury found W.R. Grace Co. guilty and cleared Beatrice Foods; the judge threw out the verdict and Grace settled with the defendants
SIGNIFICANCE: One of the first high profile suits involving pollution by a major corporation, it also demonstrated the difficulty of proving a direct connection between cancer and specific chemicals.
From 1965 to the early 1980s, residents of Woburn, Massachusetts, particularly children, began contracting leukemia at a rate in excess of the national norm. The citizens of Woburn wondered why, and some felt they had found the cause—industrial pollution. In 1982, Anne Anderson and several other townspeople sued the W.R. Grace Company, Beatrice Foods, and the Unifirst Company, claiming that these corporations were responsible for contaminating wells that supplied water to the town. The plaintiffs were the families of seven children who had contracted leukemia, five of whom were already dead. The parents of these children claimed that the companies' manufacturing operations had polluted two city-owned wells, which in turn caused their children's disease. The parents also claimed that the contamination was responsible for the unusually high number of cases of leukemia among other children in the town of Woburn, as well as cases of liver disease and central nervous system disorders.
Taking on Two Giants
The plaintiffs settled with the Unifirst Company, an industrial dry cleaning business, for one million dollars, and they used the settlement money to continue to press their case against both Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace and Company. The case was one of the few in which a small group of private citizens was successful in marshaling the resources necessary to take on a major corporation.
In March of 1986 the first phase of the trial began. In an unusual move, the plaintiffs did not ask for a specific amount in damages, but the trial judge, Walter Jay Skinner, characterized the potential award as "astronomical." In his opening arguments before the jury, Jan Schlictmann, attorney for the plaintiffs, promised to call an array of expert witnesses to the stand who would prove that the chemicals found in the aquifer were "toxic and can destroy cells;" that the companies had knowingly dumped them onto Grace and Beatrice property; and that they later seeped into Woburn's water supply through two nearby wells. Lawyers for Grace and Beatrice argued that while solvents were dumped on company land, the dumping had not been reckless or negligent. Both companies contended that chemicals in the city water supply could have come from a number of other sources in the Woburn area, since the town had been an industrial and manufacturing center since the 1850s. Grace's attorney, Michael Keating, claimed that he would present testimony that the land between Grace's Cryovac Division, which made food packaging equipment, and the city wells lay in such a way that none of the chemicals in question—specifically trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene—could have reached the wells.
Verdict Is Thrown Out by Judge
For the plaintiffs to prevail, they had to prove that the chemicals repeatedly detected in the wells by the Environmental Protection Agency came from the Grace and Beatrice properties. They then had to prove that drinking water contaminated with these chemicals in the proportions found in the wells could cause leukemia and the other related illnesses. They partly succeeded on both accounts. On May 28, 1986, the six-member jury found that W.R. Grace's plant in Woburn had been negligent in dumping substances regarded as potential human carcinogens that could also cause liver, kidney, and nervous system damage when ingested in high doses, on their property. The jury also found that W. R. Grace was responsible for the contamination of the ground water serving the residents of east Woburn, where the leukemia cases were clustered. But the jury cleared Beatrice Foods and its subsidiary, the J.J. Riley Co., the owner of a tannery in the same area accused of contaminating the ground water. Attorneys for W.R. Grace argued that without a specific date, it was impossible to know whether the chemicals contaminated the aquifer before the illnesses began. The trial judge, U.S. District Court judge Walter Skinner, threw out the jury's verdict against W.R. Grace, holding that the jurors could not know with certainty when the pollutants penetrated the water supply. On September 22, 1986, with an appeal pending, W.R. Grace settled with the Woburn families for a reported eight million dollars. Jan Schlictmann, the plaintiffs' attorney, claimed that the settlement "showed that companies can be made to pay for poisoning their community." In return for the payments the families agreed to drop their suit against W.R. Grace. Michael Keating, the company's chief counsel, said that the settlement agreement did not mean that the company acknowledged any responsibility for the pollution or the deaths. He said that the company settled in order to avoid "additional strain on the families" and to cut further litigation costs.
Judge Denies Request for New Trial
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for a new trial of the suit against Beatrice Foods on the grounds that defense lawyers failed to disclose a potentially damaging report on the pollution of the property that Beatrice Foods owned. The federal appeals court ordered a new hearing on the issue of the pollution from the JJ. Riley tannery, finding dereliction of duty by the company and its lawyers for failing to supply a 1983 hydrogeologic report that might have confirmed that the tannery had contaminated the ground water. The appeals court claimed that "the record contains clear and convincing evidence—overwhelming evidence, to call a spade a spade—that [Beatrice] engaged in what must be called misconduct" on the tannery issue.
The case returned to the original trial court for hearings on the report, but there Judge Skinner denied the plaintiffs a new trial, saying that it would be "pointless, wasteful and unwarranted." During the hearings Schlictmann charged Beatrice Foods with a massive cover-up of environmental crimes and charged that the J.J. Riley Company had illegally carted off toxic waste from its property to conceal the pollution. In his decision, Skinner chastised Schlictmann for pursuing a retrial, claiming that he lacked "competent evidence." Skinner found that the report in question failed to prove conclusively that chemical contamination committed by Beatrice existed at the tannery. "The chance that a viable 'tannery case' could be developed in any further proceedings is virtually nonexistent," he declared, "even if the plaintiffs were entitled to try." The First Circuit upheld this decision on appeal in 1990, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari that same year.
But the litigation was not over yet. The struggles of the families in Woburn and their attorney, Jan Schlictmann, were later chronicled in a popular book and a movie, both entitled A Civil Action. This prompted a defamation suit against Jonathan Haar, the book's author, and Random House, Inc., its publisher. In still another case, Beatrice Foods sued its insurance companies to recover legal fees.
The Woburn cases demonstrated that eight tragedy-stricken families and a small law firm could successfully challenge two rich and powerful corporations and their attorneys. The cases also raised awareness of the importance of corporations properly disposing of and handling hazardous materials.
—Carol Willcox Melton
Suggestions for Further Reading
Grossman, Lewis, Robert G. Vaughn, and Jonathan Haar. A Documentary Companion to A Civil Action. Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1999.
Haar, Jonathan, A Civil Action. New York: Random House, 1995.