Review: A Civil Action

I grabbed this 1995 book by Jonathan Harr because it was about a lawsuit over water pollution in Massachusetts.

It was a bit of a slog, in terms of reading, but nothing like the slog that the plantiffs’ lawyers went through to bring their case in the early 1980s.

Harr was “lucky” to get interested in the case in its early stages, which meant that he was literally the “fly on the wall” for much of the story’s development.

The case revolves around trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of groundwater, which is — the lawyers claim — linked to a cluster of fatal cases of leukaemia.

Most of the book is about the (intentionally) drawn-out legal battle between prosecuting lawyers for the victims (working on contingency) and defence lawyers for the large corporations (billing by the hour).

And it’s painful to read about all the manoeuvres of the defence (many legal, most unethical) as they try to obfuscate, delay and deny the guilt of their clients — guilt that was proven and admitted under a subsequent EPA investigation.

“Real life” can be very messy, and Harr does an excellent job at tracking the many details and emotions of the many participants in the case.

As an economist, I see this book as a rebuttal of the ease with which we call out “externalities” and advocate for “polluter pays” policies when those polluters have plenty of money, lawyers and sympathetic legal and political systems. Justice is just not that easy, which is why it’s so often absent.

I give this book FIVE STARS for boiling down such a complex case.

Addendum (5 Sep 2023): Just another story about a company trying to dodge responsibility for polluting groundwater  (with PFAS). 28 Sep: The company is guilty of lying.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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