A Civil Action (1998)

PG-13  |   |  Drama  |  8 January 1999 (USA)
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Ratings: 6.5/10 from 22,498 users   Metascore: 68/100
Reviews: 177 user | 109 critic | 26 from Metacritic.com

The families of children who died sue two companies for dumping toxic waste: a tort so expensive to prove, the case could bankrupt their lawyer.



(book), (screenplay)
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Nominated for 2 Oscars. Another 5 wins & 8 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Bruce Norris ...
William Cheeseman
Neil Jacobs
Richard Aufiero
Al Eustis


Jan Schlichtmann, a tenacious lawyer, is addressed by a group of families. When investigating the seemingly non-profiting case, he finds it to be a major environmental issue that has a lot of impact potential. A leather production company could be responsible for several deadly cases of leukemia, but also is the main employer for the area. Schlichtmann and his three colleagues set out to have the company forced to decontaminate the affected areas, and of course to sue for a major sum of compensation. But the lawyers of the leather company's mother company are not easy to get to, and soon Schlichtmann and his friends find themselves in a battle of mere survival. Written by Julian Reischl <julianreischl@mac.com>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Justice has its price.



Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG-13 for some strong language | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

8 January 1999 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Una acción civil  »

Box Office


$60,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend:

$70,079 (USA) (25 December 1998)


$56,702,901 (USA) (30 April 1999)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

| |


Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
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Did You Know?


Will Smith was first choice to play the lead. See more »


Near the end of the movie, the envelope from the EPA appears on Facher's desk before the employee places it there. See more »


[first lines]
Jan Schlichtmann: [narrating] It's like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as a living, severely-maimed plaintiff. However, if it's a long slow agonizing death, as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle aged. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who's married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 ...
See more »

Crazy Credits

The producers wish to thank the people of Boston, Waltham, Northbridge, Charlestown, Dedham, Brimfield and Palmer, MA. See more »


References Quick Draw McGraw (1959) See more »


from A Summer Place (1959)
Music by Max Steiner
Performed by Percy Faith and His Orchestra (uncredited)
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

See more (Spoiler Alert!) »

User Reviews

There's no place for pride in the courtroom
22 May 1999 | by (Sydney, Australia) – See all my reviews

Courtroom drama is a robust dramatic formula; there is human conflict, suspense and, in the verdict, resolution. In the real world court cases don't run to the formula; many cases are stillborn, many are settled before trial, some seemingly decisive victories are reversed on appeal. The lawyers generally seem to survive though. In the American system of civil litigation the contingent fee is common - the lawyer gets paid only if the client succeeds, usually a third of the verdict or settlement amount. This can lead to some pretty crass conduct.

In this film, based on a very fine book about real events in the Boston area, we have a rather rare example of a lawyer trying so hard he defeats his own cause. Yet at the end he may have brought about a greater social good. Jan Schlictman (played with smarmy aplomb by John Travolta) is a seasoned plaintiff's lawyer in personal injury cases who knows all the tricks, both in pre-trial negotiation and before a jury. He is persuaded by an associate to look into a claim by a small community that its water has been poisoned by industrial waste resulting in the deaths of at least eight children from leukemia and other ailments. The case captures his attention and before long the entire resources of his four-partner firm are concentrated on it. They are up against a local tannery owner and two huge corporations, Beatrice and W&R Grace. Beatrice is represented by Faucher (a stand-out performance from Robert Duvall) a crusty veteran of 45 years litigation (and Harvard Law School lecturer), and he doesn't have much trouble cutting Jan down to size.

Despite the escalating cost Jan doesn't seem to know when to stop. His partner James (another gem-like performance from William H Macy) does everything he can to raise money, including applying for credit cards from banks as far away as Fargo, North Dakota (those who saw Macy in "Fargo" will chuckle over that one.) Total disaster is averted but it seems that Jan has been fighting the wrong battle.

To fit the mood the lighting is dull (surely the Boston Courts are not quite as gloomy as portrayed) and the weather awful. I've never seen it rain so much in a movie. Against this dismal backdrop the performances are luminous. Apart from those already mentioned there is John Lithgow (of "Third Rock from the Sun" fame) as a conceited judge, Kathleen Quinlan as a bereaved parent, Bruce Norris as Cheeseman, Grace's super nerd lawyer, Dan Hedaya as O'Reilly the evil tannery owner and Stephen Fry as a very English geologist. And who should pop up at the end as a bankruptcy judge but Kathy Bates.

This is a case where I have read the book (by Jonathan Harr) and for the movie the film makers have rather sidelined the plaintiff/victims and focused more on Jan's manic prosecution of the case. This helps the drama but does give the impression that the plaintiffs were helpless bystanders. This was not so, as the book shows.

As a movie this one succeeds very well. Some have complained it's a bit slow and requires rather too much legal knowledge from ordinary filmgoers but there is plenty of tension and the ending is as satisfactory as one gets in real life. It's a movie to make a lawyer cringe, and that is probably recommendation enough.

31 of 33 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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