In the Shadow of Woburn

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

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 Crowley.

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.

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.

In East Woburn, eight families had lost children to leukemia over a span of two decades. Two of the town’s drinking wells were found to contain many toxins. Schlichtmann contended that two nearby companies, the W. R. Grace chemical plant and the John J. Riley Tannery, had dumped their chemical waste onto the grounds of their properties, sometimes in 50-gallon drums, and that waste had seeped into the drinking wells. Once in the drinking supply, Schlichtmann argued, the concentration of chemicals had been high enough to have caused the cancer that killed the children.

It was a bold claim, made all the bolder because environmental law was in its infancy then, the link between chemicals and the cancers they caused legally irrelevant if not nonexistent. When Schlichtmann’s firm took up Woburn in 1982, for example, none of the Big Tobacco lawsuits had been settled yet. One day, deep into the discovery phase of the Woburn case, Schlichtmann learned how delusional his cause really was.

He’d flown to Illinois to court a cancer expert from the University of Chicago. Schlichtmann still remembers the academic asking him, once he’d reached the university’s lab, "Do you have any idea what you’re trying to do here?"

"What do you mean?" Schlichtmann asked.

"Let me explain something to you. See that big computer room over there? If I came here today and told it, ‘Please spit out all the studies that have been done connecting cigarette smoking with cancer,’ I couldn’t come back here in a day. I couldn’t come back here in a week. I would come back in one month’s time and there would be tens of thousands of studies. Now let me ask you, Mr. Trial Lawyer: How many cases have been won where it was proved that cigarette smoking causes cancer?"


"Now, next question: If I go to the same computer and I say, ‘Please print out all the studies that have been done showing that exposure to these chemicals in water causes cancer in children,’ we wouldn’t have to wait a month, or a week, or an hour. The computer would say, ‘There are none.’ Understand? Tens of thousands—you still can’t do it. And you want to do it with none?"

On the flight back to Boston, well into his second scotch, Schlichtmann thought, What are you going to do? Go back and say to the families, "There are no studies?" He knew what they’d say, outspoken mothers like Anne Anderson, the lead plaintiff in the case: "Our children are the study." That was what he believed, too. And he would not back away from his version of the truth, from his sense of what was right. Just because the science didn’t exist didn’t mean it never would.

In the end, huge swaths of original scientific research in geology, epidemiology, and even cardiology were funded not by the federal government, not by wealthy nonprofits, but by Schlichtmann’s tiny law firm on Milk Street—independent scientific inquiry whose results could have helped either side in the Woburn case. A great deal of it just happened to support Schlichtmann’s. Which was a very lucky thing. The firm spent $2.6 million preparing for trial.

It may have been valiant to spend that much on research, but it was also stupid. As A Civil Action would show, Schlichtmann, Conway & Crowley took out an ever-growing number of loans and maxed out credit cards just to bring the case. Before it was over, secretaries and paralegals were working without pay. Crowley had to use his Westwood home as collateral for a loan for the firm. Conway had to use his Wellesley home as collateral—twice. (His wife still refuses to go to the annual Woburn gatherings for this reason.) Schlichtmann fell behind on his mortgage and started living in the office.

But none of the partners regretted the case. Not when they were in it. Back then, Schlichtmann’s motto for the firm was "Rich, famous, and doing good." The Woburn case would make them rich and famous, and it would do a great deal of good: create a landmark precedent, but also change corporate behavior and, by extension, the culture of America. This would be Schlichtmann’s chance to finally effect change on a grand scale.