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Film Project Review: A Civil Action 1

Meaghan Sherer

Seton Hill University

Film Project Review: A Civil Action

30 November 2016
Film Project Review: A Civil Action 2

Film Project Review: A Civil Action

“The lawyer who shares his client's pain, in my opinion, does his client such a

grave disservice, he should have his license to practice law taken away. It clouds his

judgment. And that's as beneficial to his client as a doctor who recoils at the sight of

blood.” Hearing this quote in one of the opening scenes in A Civil Action, I thought to my

self, “If Jan Schlichtmann does change his sense of character at the end of the movie, no

way is it authentic”. However, I learned you should not judge a book by its cover; people

are able to change if a large enough event/events occur in one’s life. What prompted Mr.

Schlichtmann’s and Mr. Love’s redirection and what challenges did they face by taking

the actions that they did?

When you are in elementary school, the teacher always says, “Don’t tattle. No one

likes a tattle tail.” When young children tattle, most of the time, it is to their own

advantage; they want a certain toy or they want to get someone in trouble. However, as

we grow older, we learn that “tattling” or “whistleblowing” is not as easy as it was in

elementary school. You would think that if people are dying and others are in danger, the

natural thing for everyone would to go to the authorities and report the wrongdoings.

However, after watching the movie and reviewing The New York Times and Ethic Sage

articles, we learn that there are factors to consider whether to blow the whistle or not. Al

Love and Mr. Granger feared for their livelihoods’ if they came forward about the

dumping. According to The New York Times, people who were whistleblowers often

became “excluded from decision-making activities and getting the cold shoulder from

other employees to being passed over for promotion” along with “physical threats to

themselves or property”. Ethic Sage suggests a few things if you have seen a wrongdoing
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and feel the need to report it: “commit to acting ethically; consider the consequences of

your actions on others and to yourself…our moral obligation to society does obligate us

to right a wrong when we see one that has occurred.” For Al Love, his personal

redirection came about through a culmination of two events, both of which occurred over

time. During this time he was weighing his options. The first came about when he

focused in on his wife pouring water for all of his children along with considering the fact

that some of his children were already showing signs of abnormal bodily functions. The

second wasn’t as explicit as the first. Al Love lived across the street from Ann Anderson,

a now childless mother. He had to see her everyday, knowing that he had 8 children and

she was left with none because of the happenings at his place of work. In both articles

they advise reporting the wrongdoing(s), but make sure you are doing it for the right

reasons; dying children seems like a pretty good reason. Al Love, I think, finally came to

Jan to tell of the toxic waste dumping he witnessed because could not live with the fact

that his own children might be prone to diseases or death and that he lived across the

street from a victim of his failure to report these horrid happenings.

Jan Schlichtmann, I believe had even more of an authentic character change than

anyone in the movie. Even though at times he can be viewed as selfish for not caring

about how much money not only he lost, but also made his partners loose, he was so

persistent for the right reasons. Think there were two parts to Jan’s change of heart of

originally not taking on the case because “the theatrical value of several dead kids is not

enough” to win the case. The first coming from the beginning of the movie when he is

pulled over for the second time on the bride and goes to explore the factories because

they are near a stream. If he had not been speeding and received this ticket, he would not
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have stopped and seen what people were suspecting was the cause of the deaths; the

dumping by the Grace and Beatrice companies. This event didn’t necessarily change his

“ambulance chaser” disposition of being in it for the money and not sympathizing with

the victims, but every fire needs a spark and this was it. From here, he decided to take on

the case and we see his selfish demeanor, even if he was trying to help the families win

large sums of money as an “apology”. However, Jan is not the only one to blame, James

Gordon mortgages all of their houses without warning, just as Jan does things without

consulting his partners. Another event that I think contributed to Jan’s transformation was

listening to and picturing Neil Jacob’s son dying in the car on the way to the hospital. I

think this affected him so because he said he drives on that highway everyday; the

thought, from then on, nagged at him. With the first proposition to settle, we start to see

how, even though money cannot make up for the loss of a child, he refuses $8 million

total to split among the families because, as he tells Gordon, “this isn’t about money

anymore” even though with the settlement they could crawl out of debt. This is where I

believe his change of character becomes truly authentic as he refuses to let Facher and

Cheeseman “make fools of them.” Many, I think, take the term “them” to be Jan and his

partners; however, I believe he was thinking of the families being made fools as well for

accepting $375,000 each for the loss of a child. By Facher and Cheeseman accepting the

offer Jan proposes, $25 million for compensation, $25 million for research, and $1

million per family every year for thirty years, they would be admitting that the companies

they represented were guilty of murder and the continuous carcinogens flowing into the

water supply every day. At the end of the film, we learn that Jan has $14 dollars to his

name and he wouldn’t have done it any differently; this statement shows the validity that
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by practicing law, he is no longer in it for the money. However, he was right about

empathy clouding an attorney’s judgment if they share in their client’s pain; he took the

road less traveled, fought the case for the right reasons, and ended up broke.

The way people are brought up has a very strong impact on the person they will

become later in life. We know that at the start of the movie, Jan was hard headed and

money hungry; he wouldn’t take a case unless the outcome was in his favor.

Environmental factors, peers, and life-changing events also contribute to a person’s

disposition and future actions they will take. By the end of the movie, it is safe to say that

Jan was a changed man because of this life event that crossed his path. He empathized

with the families and, therefore, took on their burdens. I would say that of the three things

I listed that contribute to a person’s deposition, life-changing events are the most

influential. Today, Jan is an environmental lawyer with no partners, so clearly taking on

this one case reoriented his life and impacted his relationships with the people that he was

the closest with. Making moral and ethical decisions, especially drastic ones such as this,

can harm relationships due to disagreements and greed.

If I were in one of the whistleblowers positions I definitely would have reported

the dumping. From the articles, I would have weighed the pros and cons of my actions

but I think that death and malformations is worth more than my job. If I was in Al Love’s

position and worked at the place that was doing these things, I wouldn’t hesitate either

because I could not live with myself knowing that the company is intentionally dumping

carcinogens, harming not only my family but others as well. Jan’s position is a little more

difficult to make a choice because, although I am not money hungry, being millions of

dollars in debt and homeless is not a life I would wish to live. But on the other hand, I
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would want to bring about as much justice as you can for the death of children. If I was in

Jan’s shoes, I may have tried to get the Environmental Protection Agency involved and

let them investigate first. Then, taking the EPA’s findings, defend the families and

hopefully not go bankrupt. However, like I said before, it depends upon the person and

their morals and how ethical of a person you are when handed difficult situations such as

these.