A Civil Action

In A Civil Action, the voice-over narrative by John Travolta, who plays the plaintiff’s lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, tells us at one point that lawsuits are war. Big firms are bullies, an idea noted earlier in the course about the power asymmetries concerning expertise, experience, financial resources, etc. involved in litigation. Does power asymmetry help us understand the problem that arose in Woburn Massachusetts and the case involving Stella Liebeck? Does Jerome Facher, for example, seem better equipped than Jan Schlichtmann to employ the tactics needed to win the case? How does A Civil Action address the use of discovery”, pre-trial conferences and pretrial motions (Rule 11) for tactical advantage by one side or the other? There are several scenes in the film that focus on negotiations over financial settlement of the plaintiff’s claims. Was Schlichtmann an effective negotiator? One interesting scene takes place in the hotel banquet room that Schlichtmann reserved for a conference with the defendant’s lawyers. The negotiations didn’t last very long. Facher walked out (and left with only the hotel pen!). What did that scene (and others like it) reveal about negotiations over settlement of claims? Are any comparable issues raised in Liebeck v. McDonalds, the hot coffee case? (Link to the Lieback v. McDonalds case: In the real Woburn case, W.R Grace settled for $8M. Another scene takes place outside the courtroom where Schlichtmann tells Facher that the jury will find the truth in this case. Facher thinks that Schlichtmann is naive. He says that the case was no longer about truth (and justice) once it entered the legal system. As portrayed here, Facher doesn’t think courts can do much to ascertain truth in complex cases such as the one that arose out of Woburn. Another issue suggested in the film is that Judge Skinner is biased against the plaintiffs. As you watch the film consider whether this bias may have affected the outcome of the case. Also draw upon ideas and concepts in the assigned reading in the Carp textbook chapter 11 which is located in the uploaded files.

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