• Janlover2015

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  • Janlover2015

    im so stoked i got first comment

  • Janlover2015

    In the Shadow of Woburn

    Twenty-five years after taking on the case of his
    life, and a decade after A Civil Action made him famous, Jan
    Schlichtmann is back in the spotlight—this time going after the Turnpike
    Authority in a half-billion-dollar lawsuit. But has he learned his
    lesson from Woburn? The jury’s still out.

    By Paul Kix |
    Boston Magazine |

    October 2009


    Photograph by Carl Tremblay

    The hearing is not going well for Jan Schlichtmann. He’s back in
    Woburn, the town that scarred him, drove him to madness, altered him
    forever, and then, still later, made him famous. Woburn has changed a
    great deal in the 23 years since the jury reached its decision in Anne Anderson v. W. R. Grace & Co., the case chronicled in A Civil Action,
    the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr. The tannery and chemical plant
    that poisoned the water are gone now, and the Middlesex County
    Courthouse itself moved to a commercial zone of office suites and chain
    restaurants right off the freeway. The cubicle farms are intended to
    show the progress of this blue-collar town, but they also lessen the
    gravitas of the court’s proceedings.

    Up on the seventh floor, in a room packed with more reporters than
    plaintiffs, Schlichtmann stands before the judge, just as transformed as
    Woburn. Gone are the Hermès silk ties, the Bally shoes, the suits that
    Schlichtmann would travel to New York to have tailored. In their place
    are a blue shirt and red tie (the only tie his friends know him to own),
    a navy blazer poorly matched with gray slacks, and black shoes that,
    from the gallery, look to be some hybrid version of tennis sneakers.

    Schlichtmann is no longer the trial king, either, and hasn’t been
    since the demoralizing Anderson verdict. He looks to settle cases now,
    which is why he’s here today, seeking injunctive relief: a court order
    for a party to stop acting in a certain manner. In this case, that party
    is the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which Schlichtmann sued this
    spring. He contends that the Turnpike Authority is unfairly burdening
    commuters who travel into Boston on I-90, and through the Sumner and Ted
    Williams tunnels. More than half the toll fees these commuters pay are
    going not to the roads and tunnels they travel every day, but to the Big
    Dig debt, now standing at $15 billion. Meanwhile, commuters traveling
    on I-93, through the center of the Big Dig, pay nothing, because I-93
    isn’t a toll road.

    The case involves the sorts of public-policy arcana that would, in
    lesser hands, make the pages of the complaints read so dry as to become
    brittle. But under Schlichtmann’s pen, the case is epic. What we have
    here is a modern-day retelling of why the patriots of centuries ago (and
    right here in Boston, mind you!) fought back against the English:
    taxation without representation! And Schlichtmann will battle

    He’s on to something, fighting along such broad lines. If he wins or,
    more probably, settles to his liking, the case will rewrite not only
    legislation in Massachusetts—which in 1997 passed the law that set up
    the Big Dig repayment plan—but also legislation throughout the country.
    In New York, for instance, two-thirds of the revenue from the city’s
    toll bridges and tunnels goes to support its subway system. If
    Schlichtmann prevails in Massachusetts, he’ll have grounds, in theory,
    to take his equitable-toll-road argument anywhere else.

    And he’ll bring the suits his way. Woburn taught Schlichtmann many
    things. Chief among them: The practice of law is “diseased,” he says,
    crowded with litigators out to destroy each other first, and resolve
    their differences later. In the two decades since Anderson,
    Schlichtmann developed and then refined—some might say perfected—a
    technique that keeps his cases largely out of the legal system: He
    establishes a public trust through which the assumed plaintiffs air
    their grievances and the facts they’ve uncovered (where Schlichtmann
    comes in) directly with the assumed defendants. The idea is to mediate
    before the sides litigate, and when it’s done well, Schlichtmann turns
    to the court only to approve the settlement.

    That’s why today is important. If Superior Judge Herman J. Smith
    orders the Turnpike Authority to stop siphoning toll revenues away from
    toll roads, Schlichtmann can force the agency to the negotiating table, a
    place it’s heretofore refused to sit, and have its lawyers mediate with
    him and the co-counsel from the case’s trust, the Massachusetts
    Turnpike Toll Equity Trust. Some 2,500 people have joined the trust
    since Schlichtmann filed suit in May; it is seeking $450 million in

    That’s a lot of money for a lawsuit in which no one died. And to hear
    Schlichtmann’s critics—who are as numerous as they are vociferous—tell
    it, the settlement he wants in this case is proof that he’s simply
    another greedy trial lawyer. No, worse, because Schlichtmann does not
    bring his cases to trial. Greed, say the critics, many of them well-paid
    lawyers themselves, was the real lesson of Woburn. Indeed, part of the
    reason this afternoon’s hearing is at times rough for Schlichtmann is
    because of the Turnpike Authority’s young lawyer, Brian Kaplan, who
    seems to relish repeating the nasty perceptions of his opposing counsel.
    Schlichtmann has a choice, Kaplan says. He can argue today that the
    harm to his clients is irreparable, a violation of the Constitution,
    which would satisfy the criteria for injunctive relief. But he can’t
    satisfy those criteria by arguing along constitutional lines and asking
    for money. Thus, Schlichtmann’s choice: Take the high ground and ignore
    money, or get dirty and talk about it a lot. “To put that choice to Jan
    Schlichtmann,” Kaplan says, staring at Judge Smith, “he’d take the

    Some members of the gallery snort at this, and the judge briefly
    raises his eyes toward them. At Schlichtmann’s table, you can see the
    back of his neck redden.

    When it’s Schlichtmann’s turn, he stands to address the judge. He is
    58 now, tall, with a prominent nose and mustache, his face gaunt enough
    to look haunted, his frame as thin as when the evening-news cameras
    first captured it a generation ago. His hair was graying then, and it’s
    nearly white now, but some things haven’t changed. He is still such a
    zealous advocate for his cases that he’d rather they be referred to as
    his “projects.” Projects are causes. Cases are what lawyers bill hours
    for. Projects are the lawsuits Schlichtmann believes in, because through
    them he can honor his most basic passions: to right wrongs and, even
    more fundamental, to expose the truth.

    In response to Kaplan’s quip, Schlichtmann reads back to the young
    lawyer, in a voice the next courtroom can hear, parts of a reform bill
    that the governor has just signed that show, to Schlichtmann, the
    injustice of the Turnpike Authority’s toll fees. “Even the legislature
    is in agreement, judge!” he shrieks.

    At the end of the hour, having heard enough from both sides, Judge Smith
    stands to leave. He has decided to enter his ruling at a later date.

    Schlichtmann takes the opportunity to go outside and talk to
    reporters. When asked about the Turnpike Authority’s strategy, he says
    the agency had showed that, in its view, “[it’s] free to rape and
    pillage the land.” This is presumably the first time a
    quasi-governmental agency charged with collecting change has been
    accused of making like Attila the Hun. But Schlichtmann doesn’t crack a
    smile at this. He just stares the reporters down.

    Woburn, it seems, changed Schlichtmann in many ways—except the most important one.

    In December 1985, a few months before the Anderson trial began,
    Schlichtmann’s grandmother died. Her funeral fell on a Sunday, but
    Schlichtmann spared only an hour to attend. That was how much the case
    consumed him.

    He came to the law as a life insurance salesman turned ACLU exec, a
    23-year-old from Framingham who had watched the Watergate hearings and
    wanted to do something equally meaningful. Something that might effect
    change. As author Jonathan Harr eventually chronicled so well in A Civil Action,
    Schlichtmann was a brash young lawyer after Cornell Law, brash enough
    to have turned down a $75,000 settlement offer in his first trial—a
    wrongful-death case, one that even the judge thought should be settled.
    He ended up winning roughly $300,000 in damages. Brash enough, too, to
    open his own firm at age 31 with two friends, Kevin Conway and Bill

    Schlichtmann, Conway & Crowley, on Milk Street in the Financial
    District, and just steps from the waterfront—it felt like Schlichtmann
    had arrived. He threw a huge bash shortly after he had the office
    renovated. Hundreds of people attended. Waiters in black tie served
    champagne. Traffic backed up for hours while a crane hoisted a grand
    piano through the second-story window. This was the Jan Schlichtmann of
    the 1980s: In the era of greed, he was as ostentatious as a Wall Street
    broker—he drove a black Porsche, lived on Beacon Hill, and bought
    furniture for the office from a former White House designer—but also so
    obsessed with his cases that he took only one at a time, the better to
    focus his energy.

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    That helped Schlichtmann become very, very good at what he did. In
    one case, he sued Massachusetts General Hospital, arguing that an
    infection had eaten away the hip bone of a man named Paul Carney, who’d
    come to MGH after a car accident. The biggest plaintiffs firm in New
    York had already turned down the case, as had two Boston firms. They
    viewed it as too complicated, the chance of victory too slim. Plus, the
    defendant was MGH, one of the greatest hospitals in the world. No
    matter: Schlichtmann received a $1 million settlement offer from MGH’s
    lawyers right before the trial. He turned it down. Lawyers around town
    whispered about the crazy young attorney who had refused a
    million-dollar settlement from MGH. Schlichtmann took the case to trial
    and won $4.7 million. It was thought to be the largest malpractice award
    in Massachusetts history.

    Woburn was his next case.

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