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In the late 1970s and early 1980s after her son, James Anderson, was diagnosed with leukemia, Anne Anderson discovered that a number of other children in her neighborhood also had the disease. Concerned about what seemed like an unusually high number of leukemia cases, Anderson and other Woburn, Massachusetts families set out to find a possible source of their children's illness. In 1986, personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann and his two partners filed a civil lawsuit of wrongful death and conscious suffering on behalf of Anderson and the other families against three companies with plants operating in the area. The lawsuit alleged that the companies illegally dumped waste containing the known carcinogens Trichloroethylene (TCE) and Perchloroethylene (PCE) and contaminating two of the wells that provided the city's water supplies. Bolstered by a Harvard School of Public Health study that found a link between the contaminated wells and increased instances of leukemia, Schlichtmann and his partners soon found themselves facing obstacles made by an unsympathetic and difficult judge. Furthermore, while Schlichtmann and his partners did an outstanding job, they were no match for the army of lawyers representing the defendants. The final judgement found only one of the three accused companies liable and resulted in a financial settlement significantly less than what was originally requested. Schlichtmann filed for bankruptcy and many of the families came away with less than $300,000 in awards (Masters, 1986). While the final judgement may have been technically correct -- based on Schlichtmann and his experts' inability to unquestionably link the companies' negligence to the children's leukemia -- it was morally wrong. The jury's final decision was made without crucial evidence that Judge Skinner refused to allow the plaintiffs to present. The laws in our country were formed to protect its citizens, not its major corporations. In this decision, however, the citizens did not prevail.
Within a one-block area of Woburn, six children were diagnosed with childhood leukemia between the years of 1974 and 1979, according to a 1986 article in the Harvard University student newspaper The Crimson (Masters, 1986). This is about 30 times the normal rate, which is four out of every 100,000 children diagnosed with childhood leukemia annually (Masters). The families believed their children were made sick from the water, which smelled foul. After tests revealed the presence of TCE and PCE in two of Woburn's water supplies, Schlichtmann and his partners, armed with an expensive army of scientists and other professionals, traced the source of the chemicals to the Cryovac plant, owned by W.R. Grace & Co., an industrial company and other nearby plants operated by Beatrice Food Company and Unifirst (Koscielski, 2010). The plaintiffs argued that the companies were negligent because they dumped chemical waste in an area that drained into the public water supply. They further argued that the chemicals that leached into the water are toxic and known carcinogens.
The defendants argued that the plaintiffs did not show a direct link between the companies' dump sites and the water contamination. They further argued that the plaintiffs failed to show a direct link between the polluted wells and higher-than-normal cancer rates. Indeed, while a Harvard University School of Public Health study found that the Woburn children with leukemia ingested twice as much polluted water as others, and families whose water came from the polluted wells also experienced higher than average rates of babies dying at birth, scientists could not show a direct correlation between the polluted wells and increased cancer rates in the area (Masters, 1986).
In 1986, more than four years after the trial began, the jury found W.R. Grace negligent in contaminating Woburn's water supplies. However, the jury could not find enough evidence against Beatrice Foods to find it negligent as well and Judge Walter Skinner dismissed the case against that company. Schlichtmann settled with W.R. Grace for $8 million. Unifirst settled earlier in the trial for $1 million dollars. Beatrice Foods offered an $8 million settlement earlier in the trial, but Schlichtmann refused, so Beatrice Foods did not have to pay any damages. The final judgement was insufficient to reimburse Schlichtmann, who spent millions of dollars of his own money on expert witnesses and scientists.
The plaintiffs lost because they could not prove outright that the companies were directly responsible. None of the hired witnesses, mostly scientists, could prove that the companies' illegal dumps drained directly into the water supply. Additionally, none of…[continue]
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