Law: Sue them with a smile

Jan Schlichtmann was the sharp-shooting civil lawyer who ended up burnt out and bankrupt. Now he's back, specialising in environmental actions as a new model of caring litigation (and being played on screen by John Travolta).
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The Independent Culture
John Travolta has been praised for his portrayal in the film A Civil Action of Jan Schlichtmann, an American lawyer at the cutting edge of civil litigation, with a reputation for being as sharp as his suits. But the real Jan Schlichtmann is not quite the mercenary opportunist Travolta plays.

"If I was a money-grubbing, shallow guy, why would I take on a case like this in the first place?" Schlichtmann asks with the charm that made him win over so many juries. "That's a part of the film that rings a little false. I don't think the characters that the film shows would ever have been interested in this type of case.

"A faker wouldn't have lasted two seconds. Sure, there was the profit motive - we were motivated by all the kinds of things that motivate human beings - but there was the sense of adventure and treasure hunting and also being caught up in the family story."

The eight families represented by Schlichtmann's firm on a contingency fee believed contamination of their water supply in Woburn, Massachusetts, was responsible for a cluster of leukaemia and other health problems. But they were up against two huge corporations, WR Grace and Beatrice Foods. Schlichtmann wanted to present human horror stories to a jury, but was forced, by an unsympathetic judge, to run a tedious technical trial instead.

"All the scientists and doctors we brought together - the film doesn't convey what we had to go through, and that this was the first case of its kind," he says.

"Many scenes weren't put in that one hopes will be when the video comes out: the car being repossessed, the condo with all the treasures removed - some sense that I had a home, a life that was taken away from me!

"I had a relationship that didn't survive the strain. There were painful choices to make. The book gives you that, but the film lacks the human dimension." The book A Civil Action by investigative journalist Jonathan Harr (Vintage, 1995 US) is now required reading in law schools across America, where Schlichtmann is in great demand as a speaker.

Schlichtmann's story is a classic one of hubris - of great pride before a great fall. By the time he was 30 the tall, slick young personal injury lawyer had gained a reputation for winning record levels of compensation by taking risky gambles in front of juries. He liked conducting negotiations over lobster and grand cru Bordeaux in luxurious venues. But, before the end of the nine-year long landmark environmental litigation, he had lost his Porsche, his posh flat, his girlfriend and could barely borrow enough to keep his bespoke suits and Hermes ties dry-cleaned.

Schlichtmann was living in his office, being fed by friends and had exhausted both his credit and his physical and mental health. The pounds 6m he won for his eight clients at the end of it seemed, with hindsight - and the majority going to cover expenses - hardly worth the toll it took. At 39, burnt out and bankrupt, he headed for Hawaii, to embark upon what he now calls his "wilderness years".

His ticket was bought for him by his friend, Thomas Kiley, for whose law firm he now works.

"I walked over a mountain pass and got to a beach where I stripped off, began swimming away from shore and nearly kept on swimming." But some deep sense of self-preservation made him turn back.

Now - back in the Boston area specialising in environmental actions, having acted as a consultant on the film - he feels, at 48, a new man and has a young family. He married Claudia Barragan, whom he'd met during the Woburn appeal, when he returned to Boston in 1993. He is also now a "New Age" litigator who aims to make litigation much more civil.

"I was a fighter and very much part of the existing culture of being a champion for my clients," he points out. But he wants to change that culture. "The Woburn case was fought with this warrior mentality and the first casualty was the truth. The fundamental rottenness at the core of the system was exposed," he says. "The biggest error is in seeing litigation as a `them or us' fight to the death. Now I try to devise a strategy to enlighten and involve the other side. I try not to fight a lawsuit - but to gather facts and bring both sides together to have a discussion in a non-competitive atmosphere."

But John Dunckley of EarthRights, a London law firm specialising in environmental law, believes: "There needs to be an equality of power for this co-operative approach to work. Otherwise no one will listen." Schlichtmann finds they will.

"I have so far worked on two environmental cases using the new model, and it has worked, and the problem has been solved in record time with a great saving of resources on all sides," he says with some pride.

In Groton, Massachusetts, the community and a company worked together to establish a health study which showed that low-level contamination by solvents in the water supply was responsible for learning disabilities among children. A seven-figure payout was agreed without any litigation.

He was called into Tom's River, New Jersey to deal with a cluster of blood and brain disorders among children in 60 families "with a lot of questions to answer from two big companies". The companies - which he hopes will help answer them, he says - are Union Carbide and Ciba Geigy. "But we have not filed suit against them."

"We have agreed an 18-month period in which there would be no legal action but information would be shared to see what if anything we should be doing. That will need to be reviewed later this year, and at that time we'll decide whether to renew. So far it has been very productive," he stresses.

He favours the setting up of research and education organisations - such as TEACH, or Toxic Environments Affect Children's Health - as part of settlements. This was initially done after the Exxon Valdiz disaster, he notes. It enables the defendants to feel part of a constructive, rather than purely punitive solution.

Schlichtmann sees genetically modified foods, and irradiated foods, as part of another great battle - or an opportunity for co-operation and compromise - and is developing a company, which is called Earthspeak Productions, to produce television programmes on all types of environmental issues. His website ( is encouraging people to come forward and share case studies.

With the great amount of hype surrounding the film, A Civil Action, Schlichtmann should become an even hotter property in the near future. However, he is trying to keep his heart humble and to remember the hard lessons he has learned over the years.

"We have to remember that litigation is just a tool - and a very blunt one at that," says Schlichtmann, clearly enjoying being at the sharp end once again.